Winter/Spring 2015 (Vol. 43, Nos. 1 & 2)

Winter/Spring 2015

An Encounter with a Painting by Wendy McDowell

New Rooms in the Interfaith Movement by Eboo Patel
The problem that interfaith work should be seeking to solve is the polarization of people who orient around religion differently.
Lead, Don’t Follow on Climate Justice by Tim DeChristopher
The moral leadership of religious people is needed to challenge and deepen the climate justice movement.
Judaism’s Gifts to Climate Activism by Shoshana Meira Friedman
Jewish traditions bring unique teachings and values to interfaith climate activism.
Red Flags for American Jews? by Robert Israel
A 2013 Pew report points to ways Judaism can be made relevant for a growing number of nontraditional American Jews.

The Conscious Heart by Mary Anderson
By making us present to ourselves, the practices of art and of prayer can cultivate awareness of our inmost being, waking us to love and compassion.
Religious Law and the Visual Secular by Suzanne Smith
What do we mean when we say a work of Western art, especially a representation of religious law, has both “secular” and “religious” significance?
Why 'Brain Death' Is Contested Ground by Jeffrey P. Bishop
The Jahi McMath case illustrates the disjunction between medical definitions of bodies and the ways we constitute meaningful relationships with our family members.
What Does Work Mean to Widows in Afghanistan? by Anila Daulatzai
When Western governments try to help victims of war in Kabul, neoliberal ideas of what it means to care can miss the point.

In Review:
Artists Make Good Theologians by Sarah Sentilles
Longing for Mary and for the unsayable in the poetry of Mary Szybist and the art of Hayley Barker.
Islamic Education and the Body by Ousmane Oumar Kane
The Walking Qur’an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa, by Rudolph T. Ware III.
Narrative Wounds and Livable Fictions by Matthew Potts
Bearing witness and fixing blame in Russell Banks’s novel The Sweet Hereafter.
Ronald Dworkin’s Onto-Theology by Ronald E. Osborn
The onto-theological drive in Ronald Dworkin’s final book, Religion without God.
Performing World Missions in 1911 by Dana L. Robert
Erin L. Hasinoff’s Faith in Objects: American Missionary Expositions in the Early Twentieth Century.

Two poems by Paula Bohince
Death Pose by Wesley Rothman

See also: Past Issue

An Encounter with a Painting

Wendy McDowell

One of the perks of working at Harvard is free access to the Harvard Art Museums. When I started here in 2000, it was a distinct pleasure to be able to duck into the Fogg or Busch-Reisinger for a short visit, to linger in one room—or with just one work of art—without waiting in line or paying an admission fee. I became convinced that this is the way art should be encountered: monogamously, keeping company with one work or set of works at a time, instead of engaging with several pieces of art in a rushed act of consumption (rather like speed dating).

I found myself developing deeper relationships with works of art than ever before, and I fell in love with one in particular: An Encounter at a Well, an eighteenth-century Rajasthani court painting by an unknown artist in the Arthur M. Sackler Museum collection.1 This was an unlikely object of affection for me, since I usually preferred abstract and political art.2 To my eye, this was a romantic, traditional painting depicting the meeting of a man on a blue horse with a woman at a well, while four maidens gaze on. Since all the figures are elegantly dressed, I assumed they were nobility (and royal portraiture traditions tended to raise my working-class hackles). Moreover, having never traveled to India and with only the most basic knowledge of Hindusim (at the level of an undergraduate world religions course), I was woefully ignorant of the rich artistic, religious, literary, and sociopolitical traditions that informed this painting.

My dialogue with An Encounter at a Well over the course of a couple of years ended up challenging, loosening, and undoing assumptions I didn't realize I held.

Nevertheless, something drew me back to this work again and again. Was it the vivid use of color—the light cornflower blue of the horse, the golden yellow of the woman’s gown, the celestial black of the man’s dress (echoed in the gown of one of the maidens), and the impressionistic strokes of the hills and waters surrounding them? Was it the delicate gesturing, the man on horseback arching up to the woman and the woman bending down to him as they exchange a vessel—gestures of offering, of gift-giving? (I could never be sure which figure was the giver and which was the recipient—an ambiguity that only made me like the painting more!) Was it the evocative setting of the well (in this painting, the well seems to radiate, as if lit from within)?3

It was all of these things and none of them. I simply found myself wanting to luxuriate in this work, to listen to its whisperings. There was a tenderness in it, a lyricism, and yet it didn’t cross the line into sentimentality, which would have turned me off. I sensed that the “encounter” pointed beyond the human beings on the canvas to a deeper mystery, perhaps an exchange with the divine (or maybe it represented one of those rare moments in which our communion with another feels charged with a transcendent power).

In her essay, Mary Anderson writes that art (and prayer) can “provide a vantage point of alterity—an ekstasis, or ‘standing beside oneself’—from which we may begin to see ourselves.” She explains:

Through the otherness of art, its presence and its objecthood, my work and world are turned toward the other, revealed to have an ethical existence. Art confronts and affronts us; its otherness calls us . . . into question, initiating us to alternative ways of seeing. (30)

I imagine many of you have had just this experience of being confronted and changed by a work of art. My dialogue with An Encounter at a Well over the course of a couple of years ended up challenging, loosening, and undoing assumptions I didn’t even realize I held about my aesthetic tastes and about gender roles.4 I expanded my understanding of what counts as “political” art,5 and of the ways mystical experience and romantic love might be related or correlated.

It began to feel wrong to know so little about my beloved painting, so I schooled myself a bit more in its historical and artistic context.6 Looking at this work became a deeper contemplative act, “an act of beholding” rather than one of appropriation. I came to see that it was precisely because the world of this image felt so distant from my own (in time and place) that it was able to awaken my imperfect, ignorant, fragmented, longing self. It put me right up against the parts of the world that “can’t be captured,” be they external or internal to us, and as Sarah Sentilles puts it so eloquently:

God is not the only uncapturable thing. There is . . . a part of every person (every tree, every animal, every rock) that is uncapturable, unsayable, irreducible, resistant, free, unknowable. And because it is unknowable, you cannot name it or depict it or colonize it or paint it or photograph it. (73)

Many of the essays in this issue address ways and limits of seeing, exploring “the difference between appropriation and reception, between grasping and listening, between talking about a thing, objectifying it, and being in dialogue with it” (Anderson again). Suzanne Smith analyzes the “moment . . . of an inward ‘stepping back’ with respect to what to do about the giving and living of the law,” and she helps us to see representations of religious law in Western art in radically complex ways. Anila Daulatzai challenges us to truly listen to widows in Afghanistan and to rethink our neoliberal notions of “care” for them. Jeffrey Bishop urges us to understand how medicine’s metaphysical views about the body chafe against our own sense of being “constituted interpersonally.”

How we constitute ourselves and others—in the past, present, and future—is a key concern for many authors here, including Eboo Patel, Ronald E. Osborn, and Dana L. Robert. Shoshana M. Friedman and Tim DeChristopher call on religious traditions to bring their countercultural values and resilient hope to the climate justice movement, so that we might recognize the “deep and visceral connection between human actions and the well-being of the land” (16). Still, in all of our endeavors—art, religion, storytelling, activism, sacrifice—Matthew Potts cautions us, “we should allow our encounter with others . . . to undo our certainties, and we should accept that those others might also come, rightly, to reject the sacrifices we offer” (79).



  1. One of the Sackler Museum’s strengths is its collection in Rajput (Indian) art, in part because of John Kenneth Galbraith’s gifts of Indian painting (this one among them).
  2. E.g., Kandinsky’s abstracts, Rivera’s murals, and the edgy works of Joseph Beuys, Joyce Wieland, and Faith Ringgold.
  3. The well resonates across many literary and religious traditions, a symbol of the thirst for love (human or divine).
  4. I was surprised to find I had rigid ideas about feminine and masculine spheres, especially vis-à-vis religion.
  5. After all, sustaining “traditional” artistic forms can be a political act.
  6. At the time, I found mostly art books and exhibition catalogues about Rajasthani painting, such as Steven Kossak’s Indian Court Painting, 16th–19th Century (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997). A recent study is Molly Emma Aitken’s The Intelligence of Tradition in Rajput Court Painting (Yale University Press, 2010).

Wendy McDowell is senior editor of the Bulletin.

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See also: Arts and Music

Artists Make Good Theologians

Sarah Sentilles

In Review | Books & Art Incarnadine: Poems, by Mary Szybist. Graywolf Press, 72 pages, $16.

Apparition Hill, by Hayley Barker. May 2014 exhibit at the Charles A. Hartman Fine Art Gallery, 134 NW 8th Avenue, Portland, Oregon, May 2014. Online at


"She does no touch the ground" (Pray the Rosary Daily for World Peace)


Hayley Barker, “She does not touch the ground” (Pray the Rosary Daily for World Peace), gouache on pamphlet, 5 ¼ x 3 ¼" (2014). Courtesy Haley Barker.


I have a confession to make: I think artists might be better at theology than many theologians are. I came to this conclusion while teaching at an art school. My students—painters, photographers, animators, performance artists, illustrators, sculptors—seem to understand instinctively what it took me years to learn: the world is made and can be unmade and remade. As makers, they know their constructions have material effects, and they want to be held accountable for the work their creations do in the world. Unlike many a theologian, my students would never confuse their image of a thing with the thing itself. They are comfortable in the gap, with mystery, with the unfinished—because that’s where art lives.

My professor at Harvard Divinity School, the late theologian Gordon Kaufman, taught me that theologians are artists. Their creations are not works of art to be hung on the wall, he said; rather, they are worlds to be lived in. Kaufman often pointed to Genesis, to the God who speaks words to bring the world into being, who uses clay and breath to make human beings. You see, he’d say. In this story God is a poet and a potter, and even though that doesn’t tell us much about God, it tells us a lot about what the authors thought about artists: They knew their work was world making.

Last spring, I met with two world-making artists, the painter Hayley Barker and the poet Mary Szybist. Both have made recent work about Mary, Jesus’s mother. Barker’s show Apparition Hill was made in response to a visit in 2013 to the village of Medjugorje in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a site of war and trauma. While there, she traveled to Apparition Hill, where people have reported seeing the Virgin Mary since 1981, and where thousands of pilgrims now go to try to see her, too. Szybist’s most recent book of poems, Incarnadine, for which she won the National Book Award in 2013, reimagines incarnation scenes everywhere.

While Barker and Szybist talked about their creative practices, about “repurposing traditions” rather than abandoning them, I couldn’t help but think of the iconoclasts, who aimed their hammers at the parts of the sculptures that mattered most—their open eyes and their noses. Vision and breath. They didn’t destroy the statues. They didn’t leave them unrecognizable. They simply made them incomplete, broken, missing something essential, and the holes, the emptiness, made sure no viewer would forget they were artifice, constructed, lest people get confused, lest people think the painting of the saint is the saint herself.

It is the break that renders the statues holy, makes them point elsewhere—which is similar to how Susan Stewart defines souvenirs in On Longing. “The souvenir is by definition always incomplete,” she notes.1 The material object you bring home is a fragment of the thing itself—a ribbon from a bouquet of flowers, a lock of hair from the body of your beloved, a rock from your favorite mountain—and it must remain a fragment, partial. It must point to the thing, the experience, the place, the body without fully being the thing, the experience, the place, the body. Barker’s Apparition Hill and Szybist’s Incarnadine do exactly this work.

Barker, Szybist, and I met in a Portland gallery where Apparition Hill was hanging. Barker’s exhibition includes drawings she made on the hill, souvenirs she brought home with her and then altered, and paintings she made in her studio when she returned. Barker went to Apparition Hill as a pilgrim of pilgrims, looking not for Mary necessarily, she said, but for the people who were looking for Mary and for the place where they were seeing her.2 Barker was drawn to the landscape itself—to how the longing to see Mary was made visible in the rocks that have been worn away by footsteps. “If you want to see God, you go to the church,” Barker said. “But if you want to see Mary, you go to the mountain. Mary is incarnate. She can show up because she was a body first and foremost.” The pilgrims Barker saw on Apparition Hill seemed to physically need Mary. If they could not touch her themselves, Barker said, they wanted to touch the visionaries who saw her or the landscape where she appears. “They wanted to feel that energy transmitted,” she said.

She is gone. Look! The Light!
She is gone. Look! The Light!, oil and spray paint on panel, 10 x 8" (2014). Courtesy Hayley Barker.

Mary—or what Barker calls “the longing to see her”—makes an appearance in every painting in Apparition Hill. Barker’s paintings contain explosions of color, layers and layers of paint, allusions to other paintings, palpable energy. The paintings are small, intimate; they are like icons, Barker said, that may or may not be empty. Take, for example, the painting She is gone. Look! The Light! The title (like almost all of the titles in the show) is composed from words the visionaries have used to describe Mary and their experiences in seeing her. These particular words—She is gone. Look! The Light!—come from one of the first sightings. “Mary disappeared and then a bright flashing light took her place,” Barker said. “I tried to convey something of that in the painting.” There are blues and greens, darkness, luminous spray-painted marks of yellow, a dash of red. I can see a figure, but as soon as I move close to the painting, she is, as the title suggests, already gone.

Szybist’s Incarnadine is also about “looking at longing.” In the book’s opening poem, “The Troubadours Etc.,” Szybist writes: “but the troubadours knew how to burn themselves through, / how to make themselves shrines to their own longing. / The spectacular was never behind them.” Szybist writes about a longing for Mary—what she calls “Mary hunger,” a desire for a female mother figure, a desire for nourishment, but also a sometimes unsafe desire for a figure that has done damage to women, who is offered as a vision for female beauty, as a model for behavior that is unreachable and often destructive. “I think it is hard to imagine a figure that has done as much damage to women as this one,” Szybist said. “She is an ideal that is part of patriarchal culture, an impossible ideal, and women suffer all the time when they are measured against it.”

I grew up Catholic and understood at a young age that representations of Mary’s body were designed to teach me something about my own body—whether that lesson was about beauty or purity or virginity or sacrifice or motherhood. Barker echoed similar struggles. “My womb has always been a pretty contentious place in my Catholically raised brain,” she said. Several years ago, after ovarian cancer, after surgery, facing her own mortality, Barker was questioning everything. Seeking comfort, she started going to Mass again. “It lasted for a few months,” she said. “But then I thought, there is no place for me here, for what is left of me. I don’t fit into this paradigm. And that was so upsetting. To feel this last resort was wiped away, which is when I started thinking, can I make Mary something else? Can I make her different? Can I rebuild her or find pieces and make a kind of Frankenstein Mary that is better?” Szybist was asking related questions when writing Incarnadine. “How do you deal with this ideal that so infects the imagination?” she asked. “If women are still valued for their status as virgins and mothers, and if I am neither a virgin nor a mother, then how will I be valued? How will I value myself? I was trying to come to terms with that. It was part of the impetus.”

For Szybist and Barker, making art—poems, altered souvenirs, paintings, drawings—is a way to deconstruct and reconstruct Mary. “People are hungry for her to be reimagined and reenlivened and relevant,” Szybist said. “Just ignoring this imaginative training (that comes via everything from religious doctrine to pop culture) doesn’t make it go away. You actually have to get in and remake it.” Szybist’s goal was not to get rid of one system and “create a whole new mythology.” Instead, she said, she wanted to “get out of the shadow of how singular she was in [her] imagination.” She did so by remaking multiple versions of Mary in order to “diffuse” her—so she would no longer be “such an overshadowing Platonic ideal.”

In Szybist’s poem “Entrances and Exits,” for example, the narrator moves between several scenes: a six-year-old girl’s visit to the narrator’s office; the story of a woman who is lost in the wilderness for two weeks and is then found at the bottom of a canyon because there are ravens circling above her; the experience of looking at Duccio’s The Annunciation (“The slender angel (dark, green-tipped wings folded / behind him) reaches his right hand towards the girl”); the day of conception in Russia when couples are “given time off from work to procreate”; and honeybees. Szybist writes, “Duccio’s subject is God’s entrance into time: time meaning history, meaning a body.” That is Szybist’s subject, too. All of the moments in her poem become possible incarnations—the girl at the desk drinking rice milk, the angel visiting Mary, the woman circled by ravens, the couples taking days off work in Russia—and, Mary Szybist, writing the poem.

Szybist uses a variety of aesthetic approaches for the poems in Incarnadine. There are poems with short lines and no punctuation; there are long-lined poems; there are prose poems; there is a poem with words arranged radially on the page and another poem diagrammed like a sentence. The multiple forms reveal the “desire to chip away at the icon, to reimagine in many ways, in many forms,” Szybist said. “It’s harder to own her. It’s harder to use her.”

Barker, too, uses a multiplicity of aesthetic approaches in Apparition Hill—altered prayer cards and souvenir bags, paintings made with oil paint and spray paint, chalk pastel drawings, and infinite references within each painting to other artists Barker admires. Barker wanted her work to contain both multiplicity and fragmentation, in part because people who saw Mary on Apparition Hill saw her in fragments. “She kept appearing in pieces,” Barker said. “At first her hands would appear and then her face. Or the little cloud that she would eventually show up on.” Though the visions of Mary were simultaneous, Mary looked different to each visionary. Barker wanted to reflect these differences in her art, “to not fix [her] in one place or time or style or mark, but to make [her] diffuse or faceted,” she said.

"Visible, permanent, and indestructible" (Neon Green Mary with Tape)
“Visible, permanent, and indestructible” (Neon Green Mary with Tape), gouache on paper souvenir bag, 7 x 3 1/8". Courtesy Hayley Barker.

The process of what Szybist called “chipping away at the icon” is most visible in Barker’s altered souvenirs. “Visible, permanent, and indestructible” (Neon Green Mary with Tape) is a small white paper bag from a gift shop. Barker has painted over the image of Mary on the bag, leaving just the shape of her. For “She does not touch the ground” (Pray the Rosary Daily for World Peace), Barker altered a prayer pamphlet with gouache. Gone is Mary’s face, and gone are the words underneath her. Instead, Mary floats in a sea of blue.

Having a religious experience is often thought of as faith confirming. Though the experience may be impossible to explain, though it may be unspeakable, it is often assumed that it helps people enter a different kind of knowing, a more secure faith. Not so for Barker. While on Apparition Hill, she had a religious experience—and, as a result, Barker said, she has never had more doubt than she does now.

“I saw the sun pulse at 6:40 pm, the time when Mary supposedly shows up every day for the visionaries. Focusing on the sun, with a crowd of international pilgrims,” she said. “I saw the ‘luminous phenomenon’ three times. The first time was the most overwhelming and it totally filled my vision and it lasted for about seven minutes. I was staring at the sun, but it didn’t hurt. I looked away and there was a burning in my forehead. It was amazing.” Barker couldn’t sleep that night. “It was upsetting and beautiful. It wasn’t what I thought it would be. I thought if something like this would happen, I would feel changed and filled with love and transcendence or ecstasy or wonder—and instead I was just like, that was some power. That was some serious power and I don’t understand it. It makes no sense to me that we are all here on this hill looking at this thing take place. And I don’t know what this is.”

The experience filled her with questions: “Why this place? Why me? Why the sun? Why did it look that way? What does this have to do with Christianity? And does it have anything to do with Christianity? Is it about just the sun and my body and chemistry and matter and soil and history? Is it about weather and geography?” Szybist added her own questions to Barker’s list: “What is human? What is divine? What is nature? What is sight? What is insight?” For Barker, her paintings “witness failure.” She said, “Religious experience is impossible to represent, so from the very beginning they are not going to succeed. So even through trying, they’re doomed for failure. That said, this is also the juiciest question I can think of to work on in a painting.”

Szybist’s poems focus on the annunciation, which could be understood as a religious experience for Mary, a moment of incarnation. What interests her most about the annunciation—especially how it is represented by visual artists—is the space between the figures. “What’s at the center of [annunciation paintings]? Absence really. It’s the space between. That’s the subject.” Szybist continued, “We can’t really reach each other on some level, in some ways.”

The space between—which can be both a space of doubt and a space of faith—is central to both Szybist’s poems and Barker’s paintings. Szybist is interested in “the question mark.” She said: “When we think we’re connecting with the divine, what’s actually there? And when we think we’re not, same thing.” She continued, “I think there is a longing to say what can’t be said. I think there is also, for me, the longing for there to be something unsayable.”

Theology is, by definition, about what can’t be said, about what can’t be captured—and for me, God is not the only uncapturable thing. There is, rather, a part of every person (every tree, every animal, every rock) that is uncapturable, unsayable, irreducible, resistant, free, unknowable. And because it is unknowable, you cannot name it or depict it or colonize it or paint it or photograph it. It will not fit. In her book Precarious Life, Judith Butler argues that this unknowable part of the other makes a claim on her. “It comes to me from elsewhere, unbidden, unexpected, and unplanned,” she writes. “In fact, it tends to ruin my plans, and if my plans are ruined, that may well be the sign that something is morally binding upon me.”3

The more I teach, the more I write, the more convinced I become that what good art and good theology have in common is embracing failure. In Performance Theatre and the Poetics of Failure, Sara Jane Bailes frames failure as a kind of resistance, of refusal—a way of challenging capitalism, oppression, and violent representational practices. Bailes uses the word “poetics” to highlight “the idea of making, [to call] attention [to] the principles and techniques that constitute a practice . . . where failure underlies the activity.”4 Influenced by my work with Kaufman, I claim failure as an ethical resource. Kaufman argued that the words humans use to talk about God are human words, “infected with our [own] limitations, interests, and biases.” Words about God always, by definition, fail. People must engage, therefore, in relentless criticism of faith and its symbols, always knowing we might be wrong.5 Kaufman used to put it this way: Just because your version of God is not God, that doesn’t mean you can’t stake your life on it. But it does mean you can’t kill someone over it.

In Vibrant Matter (a book Barker referred to as her “favorite” during our conversation), Jane Bennett writes, “We knowers are haunted . . . by a painful nagging feeling that something’s being forgotten or left out.” She is referring to Adorno’s nonidentity, that “which is not subject to knowledge,” the “discomfiting sense of the inadequacy of representation [that] remains no matter how refined or analytically precise one’s concepts become.” The ethical challenge, Bennett writes, is not to eliminate this “discomforting experience,” but to “accentuate” it. Bennett reminds her reader of the origin of the word absolute: ab means off, and solver means to loosen. The absolute, she writes, is that which is loosened off; it is on the loose—and she argues that it would be a mistake to think “the absolute” refers only to God.6 For Bennett—and for Barker, Szybist, and me, too—everything is on the loose.

Szybist’s poems are filled with a world on the loose—clouds, cornfields, cows, thunder, bees, girls, grass, umbrellas, curtains, skirts, hems, cupboards, tea, yoga mat, books, milk box, fruit, puzzle piece, houseboat, chairs, breath—and it is charged, vibrant. The world is in Barker’s paintings, too—in the paint itself. “I think the paint is the ground and the alchemy and the history of organic and nonorganic matter coming together with my body. . . . It is an incarnation to me.” She continued, “Art is an assemblage of all of the forces that we live in and through, in time and space.”

In painting and poetry, Szybist and Barker open up possibilities for thinking about the entire world as a potential site for incarnation. For Szybist, the annunciation is one moment when “the world changes”—and the change happens “through the female body.” Part of what Szybist embraces in Incarnadine is the idea that there could be other encounters in the world that might also be considered incarnations. “I thought it was a question worth taking up imaginatively,” she said. “What encounters are happening and what are they engendering? What are they making or not making incarnate in the world?” What would it mean to think about encounters between endangered species as incarnations? What does the endangered right whale incarnate? What would it mean to think about war as an incarnation? Technology? Drones? “That’s part of what Jane Bennett writes about so well in Vibrant Matter,” Barker said. “If you do believe that matter is life, all matter, whether it is a plastic bottle or a cigarette butt, then we have to also believe that how we live in the world, piece by piece, has some kind of ethical or ecological repercussion. I like thinking of the potential life between things. I think the world is full of more potentials than we commonly allow it to be.”

I have always been drawn to the image of Moses breaking the tablets. Shattering what was written in stone seems to me the most faithful action he could take. It is a gesture of failure, of transcendence, a way of saying there is more to God than anyone will ever know, a reminder not to mistake our words for God’s words, an invitation to use fragments to make something new. Barker and Szybist pick up where Moses left off. Their work is both shattering and generative. It is an invitation to transcendence. A reminder that there is always more.

In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry calls what artists create—sentences, paintings, performances, photographs, videos—“fragments of world alteration.”7 She argues that by making fragments of world alteration, artists practice the total reinvention of the world. In her National Book Award acceptance speech, Szybist said, “I think often of the words of Paul Connolly who said, ‘I believe it is not arguing well, but speaking differently that changes a culture.’ Poetry is the place where speaking differently is the most prevalent. Speaking differently is what I aspire to.” Speaking differently, painting differently, imagining differently, writing differently—this is the work of theology, too. What would happen if more theologians were to understand themselves as artists and their work as art? What change might be possible? What new world might be made?



  1. Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Duke University Press, 1993), 136.
  2. I wrote about Hayley Barker’s Apparition Hill for Oregon ArtsWatch. Some of the descriptions of her paintings that appear in this article can be found in “The Longing to See: Hayley Barker’s Apparition Hill,”
  3. Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (Verso, 2004), 130.
  4. Sara Jane Bailes, Performance Theatre and the Poetics of Failure: Forced Entertainment, Goat Island, Elevator Repair Service (Routledge, 2010), xvi.
  5. Gordon Kaufman, In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (Harvard University Press, 1995), 56, 63.
  6. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Duke University Press, 2010), 14.
  7. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford University Press, 1985), 171.

Sarah Sentilles, MDiv ’01, ThD ’08, is the author of three books, including her 2011 memoir, Breaking Up with God: A Love Story (HarperOne). She teaches at Pacific Northwest College of Art and lives in Portland, Oregon.

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Death Pose

Wesley Rothman

Paleontologists have yet to reach consensus
         about the phenomenon. Long-necked, tailed
vertebrates found with their heads thrown

back—sexually ecstatic—or offering their throats
        for sacrifice. Limbs found grid-like and flattened,
tails lain across the body like a single-stemmed

lily. In the throes of dying, raptors snap
        backwards, writhing out a battle cry,
calling down the rapture. Or after

the skirmish, their eyes evaporated as they sank
        into quiet—dark and wide—and the shrinking
world closed in. Claustrophobia: constriction

becomes the world. Or rigor mortis ran its tender
        fingers through muscles as the river rose,
rich with silt—a comforting, easy burial.



Wesley Rothman’s poems and criticism have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, New England Review, Post Road, and Prairie Schooner, among other venues. Recipient of a Vermont Studio Center fellowship as well as Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations, he teaches writing and cultural literatures in the Boston area.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

See also: Poetry

Islamic Education and the Body

Ousmane Oumar Kane

In Review | Books The Walking Qur’an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa, By Rudolph T. Ware III, University of North Carolina Press, 352 pages, $32.95 paper.

The Walking Qur’an, a 2014 book that looks at the foundational role played by Qur’anic education in building the Muslim societies of West Africa in the last thousand years, is a revised version of Rudolph Ware’s PhD dissertation in history, awarded to him in 2004 by the University of Pennsylvania. Between the defense of his dissertation ten years ago and its publication as a book, Ware conducted further fieldwork in Senegambia. The book’s title is inspired by a hadith attributed to Aisha, the wife of the Prophet Muhammad, who is reported to have said that her husband (the Prophet) was a “Qur’an walking on earth,” meaning that “God has filled his being to the point that he physically embodied the Word.” Among Muslims of West Africa, the phrase “walking Qur’an” designates pious Muslims who endeavor to live their entire lives in conformity with the teachings of the Holy Book. To ensure that their children become walking Qur’ans, Senegambian Muslims have surrendered them to Muslim clerics to teach them and forge their Islamic personality. A variety of historical sources testify to the erudition of West African Muslims prior to colonialism. These include Arabic sources as well as narratives of European travelers, all of which are elegantly and critically discussed by the author.

Ware’s main claim is that the classical Islamic theory of knowledge, largely abandoned today but still existent in West Africa, focused on the body, which “Muslims have used . . . to archive, transmit, decode, and actualize religious knowledge” (4). Ware acknowledges that a few students of Muslim societies have written about the body, but he argues convincingly that they have not explored the body with—or through—Islamic conceptions of it. This is just what he tries to do in this book, which critiques scholarly studies assuming that “the text still hangs over the body like a veil” (4). His treatment of the body and bodily encounters in the transmission of knowledge and construction of authority in Islam is truly pathbreaking.

Ware also pays considerable attention to slavery and its relationship to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century jihads in West Africa, claiming that those jihads of nineteenth-century West Africa have been misunderstood. According to him, it was not the concern over ridding African Islam of “syncretic practices” that caused scholars to wage jihad, but the enslavement of Muslims, and particularly those Muslims considered “walking Qur’ans.” He goes on to claim that Almamy Abdulqadir of Fuuta Toro abolished slavery in his domains before British abolitionists succeeded in leading Britain to decree the end of slavery. This claim is not entirely convincing. There is no denying the fact that the enslavement of Muslims might have been one of the causes for jihads in Senegambia and elsewhere, but it is not the only explanation. Ware acknowledges the paradox that heirs of jihads created most of the feudal societies in Northern Senegal. This was indeed the case in the Islamic state of Bundu, but also in Fuuta Toro, where Muslim clerics, the Torodbe, who came from humble origins, organized themselves into landowning feudal castes, excluding all others from Islamic education and social emancipation.

Ware analyzes the transformation of Islamic education during and after colonialism and draws insightful epistemological implications. He explains:

Educational methods throughout the Muslim world have changed much over the past 150 years. In spite of (or perhaps because of) its antiquity, many societies have abandoned this style of learning and teaching the Qur’an. Secular education and new kinds of Islamic schools have come to prominence. Many—both within and without Islam—have come to look at Qur’an schools across a vast epistemological divide. . . . Seen from that distance they often appear strange, controversial, even nonsensical. A seemingly narrow focus on memorization is only the beginning; one finds in the schools of the African West a whole range of practices that depart from the modern educational ethos. (3)

Among these practices, Ware explains, are corporal punishment, seeking alms, child labor, the veneration of teachers, and the internalization of texts through osmosis. As a result, he argues, “The way that they ‘know’ seems not to be ‘knowing’ at all, and the way they teach seems literally to make no sense.” His book, however, “seeks to make sense of Qur’an schooling and the philosophy of knowledge it represents and reproduces”; it adheres to the belief that “[u]nderstanding traditional Qur’an schooling on its own terms . . . hold[s] inherent value” (3).

In a subtle and nuanced analysis of these transformations of Islamic education, Ware refutes previous influential arguments that an epistemic shift from an esoteric to a rational episteme might be occurring in the postcolonial period. Instead, he argues that different discursive repertoires on education coexist, influencing each other to some degree, including the Senegalese conception of education (yar), the advocacy of child welfare NGOs against child abuse, Sufi discourses of master-disciple relations, and Salafi conceptions of disembodied knowledge. All this contributes to create “hybrid epistemologies.” This is another major contribution of the book. Moreover, Ware challenges the perceptions of many Muslim modernists, noting that they

have shared the perception that “traditional” Islam, with its conception of knowledge and its transmission along with its modes of interpretation, were stagnant and unchanging. In other words, these Muslim intellectuals shared in the colonial discourse of modernity. Yet the “traditionalist” mode of knowledge production was never as stagnant and backward-looking as they imagined. The “traditional” understanding was built on perfecting the children of Adam, molding their characters into that of the Qur’an so that they might understand their proper relationship of service to God and fulfill their Qur’anically prescribed role as His vice-regent (khalīfa) on Earth (Q 2:30). Doing so entailed not only the preservation of texts but also, and more important, their internalization—first practically and spiritually, then discursively so that religion could be performed or enacted in any conceivable real-world context by expert practitioners. (69)

Nuanced observations like this are what make this such an important contribution. Overall, this book is outstanding and its analytical depth is impressive. With its publication, Ware has established his reputation as an authority on West African history and Islamic epistemology.

Ousmane Kane is the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor of Contemporary Islamic Religion and Society at Harvard Divinity School and Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. His recent books include The Homeland Is the Arena: Religion, Transnationalism and the Integration of Senegalese Immigrants in America (Oxford University Press, 2011) and Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa (forthcoming from Harvard University Press).

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Judaism’s Gifts to Climate Activism

Shoshana Meira Friedman

Climate illustration


Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj


Rebbe nachman of Bratslav used to say:

Friends do not despair!
When a difficult time has come upon us, joy must fill the air!
We must not lose our faith in living, we must not despair.
When a difficult time is upon us, joy must fill the air!

When I was a child, singing this song in synagogue gave me great hope. I hear it now as a call to keep joy and hope alive amid the enormous environmental challenge facing humanity. We must not lose our faith in living, we must not despair. Though a difficult time is indeed upon us, joy can fill the air!1

I want to highlight three major gifts that Jewish traditions bring to the table of interfaith climate change work: first, experience with paradigm shifts; second, the connection between the environment and human actions; and third, the Jewish cycle of time, specifically the cycle of rest and renewal.

1. Paradigm shifts. When the Second Temple was destroyed by Rome in 70 CE, the Jewish community suffered cataclysmic violence and the loss of a way of life. In the chaos, a man named Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was smuggled out of a burning Jerusalem in a coffin. He brokered a deal with the Romans to give the Jews a place in Yavneh, leading to the birth of rabbinic Judaism. Out of the ruins, these Jews were able to take death—the coffin—and make it part of their plan for survival.

Whether after the destruction of the Temple, or the expulsion from Spain, or the emancipation of Jews in modernity, or the tragedy of the Holocaust, or the founding of Israel, Jews have had to reinvent how we live over and over, while maintaining integrity with who we are. We have continually needed to ask ourselves: What does it look like to rethink how we live? How we relate to community? How we relate to land, material resources, and people not in our group? In the 1990s, His Holiness the Dalai Lama recognized that his people were undergoing a dramatic cultural, religious, and political shift in exile, and he brought in a group of Jews to advise him. He called on Jews because we are experts in continuity through crisis. As a human collective, we now face our own versions of these questions, our own crisis of continuity. If we can rise to the challenge of this paradigm shift, we have a much better chance of survival.

2. Connection between the environment and human action. The idea that there is a deep and visceral connection between human actions and the well-being of the land is an integral part of Jewish tradition. In our daily liturgy, we read Deuteronomy 11:13–21. Some synagogues, uncomfortable with the overt language of divine reward and punishment, omit this passage. But many of us read it as a clarion call to sustainable living. A translation by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l2 is particularly attuned to this idea:

God says to Israel: How good it will be when you really listen and hear my directions. . . . Your earthly needs will be met at the right time, appropriate to the season. You will reap what you planted for your delight and health. Also your animals will have ample feed. All of you will eat and be content.

But be careful—watch out! Don’t let your cravings delude you. Don’t become alienated. Don’t let your cravings become your gods; don’t debase yourself to them. Because the God-sense within you will become distorted. Heaven will be shut to you. Grace will not descend. Earth will not yield her produce. Your rushing will destroy you, and Earth will not be able to recover her good balance in which God’s gifts manifest.

May these values of mine reside in your feelings and aspiration, . . . so you will be more aware. Then you and your children and their children will live . . . heavenly days right here on this earth.3

The ancient land of Israel, like the modern Middle East, lived on the ecological edge. The right rains at the right times would lead to abundance, but drought would lead to starvation. The topsoil was thin, the yearly harvests were uncertain. Yet this vulnerability gave rise to a tradition with great wisdom and respect for the delicate balance of living well on the land. If we are in the right relationship to our natural world, spiritually as well as materially, our weather will support our needs. If we are out of balance, it has drastic consequences, for us, for our children, for nonhuman animals. When I read Deuteronomy 11, I think not of geographic Israel alone, but of our whole planet. The vulnerable weather that the Torah speaks of has now expanded to the entire world, and it has never been so clear how much our actions impact that weather.

3. The Jewish cycle of rest and renewal. In Judaism, the cycles of land and the cycles of time are intimately connected. My teacher, Rabbi Nehemia Pollen, teaches the Shabbat dance. The dance goes like this: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, REST. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, REST.

In the creation story in Genesis, God dances this dance: six days of creating, and on the seventh day God rests. While God operated on a mythic-cosmic timescale, we people count days: six days of working, and then Shabbat, the day of ceasing, of rest. Shabbat is a time to refrain from purchasing, from travel, from stress, from technology. In our fast-paced, consumer age, Shabbat is an important Jewish offering to the environmental toolkit.

But we can’t stop at Shabbat. The Torah teaches that the land also rests, every seven years, during the Shmita (sabbatical) year.

The most recent Shmita started this past Rosh Hashanah, in mid-September 2014. Biblically, this is a time when debts are forgiven, land is not cultivated, and anyone can harvest what they need for the day—from anywhere. Private property boundaries become irrelevant, because the year is a reminder that the earth belongs to God. The contemporary environmental Jewish community has been reenvisioning what the sabbatical year means to humanity today. Sustainable agriculture, reconnecting to our local watersheds and landscapes, bringing a sharing economy to life in a community, working for economic and environmental justice. We need to bring Shmita values to life in a modern world, not just this year, but all the time.

I appreciate that this dance of six units of work, one unit of rest is danced by God, people, and land. The dance is one way that Jews have of asserting that nature, human, and the divine are linked by sacred rhythms.

I conclude with a teaching from an early Jewish rabbi recorded in the Mishna, a text almost two thousand years old. It is a wonderful metaphoric description of climate change and the work we are required to do:

Rabbi Tarphon said,
The day is short,
the task is abundant,
the laborers are lazy,
the wages are great,
and the Master of the house is insistent.
It is not up to you to finish the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.
(Mishna Pirkei Avot 2:15–16).



  1. This is adapted from Friedman’s talk at the conference, “Spiritual and Sustainable: Religion Responds
    to Climate Change,” held at Harvard Divinity School on November 7, 2014.
  2. Zichrono livracha (may his memory be a blessing, in Hebrew).
  3. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi with Joel Segel, Jewish with Feeling: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Practice (Riverhead Trade, 2006), 171–172.

Shoshana Meira Friedman was ordained by Hebrew College Rabbinical School. She currently works at JCDS: Boston’s Jewish Community Day School, and Congregation Shirat Hayam of the North Shore. In addition to her rabbinic and climate change work, she is a singer-songwriter and medical clown with Hearts Noses Hospital Clown Troupe.

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Lead, Don’t Follow on Climate Justice

Tim DeChristopher

Recently, there has been a growing discussion of climate change as a moral issue, both in academia and in religious communities. This past fall I spoke at three religion and climate change conferences in as many months, including a conference at Harvard Divinity School, “Spiritual and Sustainable: Religion Responds to Climate Change,” and in June 2015 I will join many global thinkers at a process theology conference on climate change in Claremont, California. The highly anticipated encyclical from Pope Francis on climate change will undoubtedly contribute and bring attention to this discourse. Frequently, however, the acknowledgment that climate change is a moral issue on which religious people should engage is the end of the conversation. There has not been nearly enough discussion about what it means to engage with this moral challenge. We have not yet answered how and where we should be taking our stand in response to climate change. I argue that when religious people answer the call of the climate crisis, we must bring real moral leadership to the climate justice movement.

The first kind of engagement with the climate crisis is usually a change in consumer behavior, reducing one’s personal carbon footprint. In our consumer-focused society, it is not surprising that the first obvious role to which we turn is that of a consumer. We see thousands of advertisements a day that remind us we are consumers. So when we seek to make an impact, we immediately think of our power as consumers. After first changing our personal carbon footprints, we then turn to our collective consumption and try to impact our organizational carbon footprint. In the buildup to the pope’s encyclical, I’ve already heard some talk about getting Catholic churches to weatherize their buildings and put solar panels on their roofs.

This is useful and important work, but, as the history of the climate movement demonstrates, this obsession over consumer behavior has limited benefit and tends to reinforce the mindset that created the problem in the first place. We got to this point of environmental crisis by “buying” into the notion that our value as people lies in our role as consumers. Furthermore, this focus on consumer activism naturally becomes a rich person’s movement. The mantra of “vote with your dollars” means that those without many votes (dollars) don’t matter very much.

Part of the role of the church is to remind us that we are more than consumers. Like many organizations, churches can bring to life our role as citizens, community members, and family members. In addition, churches are uniquely suited to develop our identities as children of God, pieces of an interdependent web of existence, or bearers of divine sparks of creativity. Connecting with these nonconsumer ways of being in the world is an adequate definition of empowerment, which is the basis of any social movement. A movement empowered by the elevation of these nonconsumer identities is a necessity for the revolutionary change that the climate crisis demands of our energy, political, and social systems.

Thus far, religious communities have primarily engaged with climate activism by getting behind the climate movement. When launches a divestment campaign, churches and denominations get on board to divest their endowments. When Bill McKibben asks clergy to participate in civil disobedience, they show up with their collars on. But waiting to be told what to do is not moral leadership. As a veteran of the climate movement, I suggest that we don’t need religious communities merely to join the climate movement. We need religious communities to lead, challenge, and deepen the climate movement.

The first imperative of moral leadership in the climate movement is to speak the hard truths about the nature of our challenge. Implicit in the idea of climate justice is the goal of keeping most fossil fuel reserves in the ground. There may be a way to do that while still ensuring the profits of the corporations that expect to extract those fossil fuels, and certain misguided initiatives like the United States Climate Action Partnership have pursued that agenda. But what separates the climate justice movement from other climate-related players is the mission of keeping those fossil fuels in the ground without guaranteeing future profits to the corporations who have already profited from exploitation.

This means that our agenda in the climate justice movement involves costing the richest and most politically powerful corporations in the world trillions of dollars in lost future profits. Keeping those fossil fuels in the ground also means costing some of the individuals at the top of that industry, like the Koch brothers, billions of dollars in expected profits. It is worth remembering that because of its structural nature, this is an industry that has killed for profit throughout its history. In my home state of West Virginia, which has been extracting fossil fuels longer than anywhere else in this country, coal has cost countless lives and has left the state as the least livable in the nation.1 As the impacts of climate change are increasingly felt, fossil fuels cost more lives around the world every year.

Not only has the fossil fuel industry continued trading human lives for profit, but, since it is difficult to convince free people to poison their own water sources or blow up their own backyards, it has increasingly killed democracy in order to keep killing people for profit. The exploits of the Koch brothers in this area are well known,2 and we as a nation have normalized the way that oil companies leverage our government to launch wars and overthrow governments that are not conducive to extraction. In Colorado, where citizens launched a ballot initiative to give local municipalities a say about fracking in their towns, Anadarko and other fracking firms pledged $50 million to fight the push for local democracy.3 From Nigeria to Ecuador, the oil industry has proven itself willing to assassinate activists who stand in the way of exploitation.

In short, the fossil fuel industry has made it quite clear that they will not relinquish those trillions in future profits without an intense fight. To be at all serious about climate justice means being willing to engage in a real struggle that will inevitably demand real sacrifices. Moral leadership in this movement requires admitting the truth that if we are at all successful in undermining the future profits of the fossil fuel industry, there will be a backlash that will likely cost some of us our lives. Regardless of what roles we play in the movement or what tactics we use, if we are to be truly effective, we will be drawing a target on our backs at which the fossil fuel industry will take aim. If we intend to take a stand against that kind of structural evil, we will have to be standing on solid rock.

Compounding this challenge of getting in the way of the profits of the richest and most ruthless corporations is the fact that we need to do so during a time of corporate ascendancy, when both parties of the United States government are beholden to corporations. As Naomi Klein argues so forcefully in her 2014 book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, the ideological victory of free-market fundamentalism is our major obstacle to making the changes that are necessary to address the climate crisis. Part of the reason that mainstream climate organizations have embraced false solutions is that adequate climate solutions are politically unfeasible in our current system of corporate rule. The work of revolutionizing our energy economy must also involve ending corporate personhood and creating a democracy in the process. If we are going to take a stand for that kind of revolutionary change, we will have to be standing on solid rock.

In addition, we are no longer tackling this challenge from the position we were in in 1992, when we had the opportunity to make a smooth transition to an ideal, healthy world. We are doing this work in 2015, after decades of emissions increases, despite the warnings. This means that, even if we are as successful as possible at reducing emissions, we will still face massive impacts and hardships on a scale likely to be catastrophic to our global civilization. If history is any guide for these times of desperation, those in power will probably use desperate measures to hold on to their power by scapegoating certain classes of people and by pitting us against one another. I am convinced that our greatest vulnerabilities to climate change are not physical conditions like low-lying cities, but rather our social divisions—classism, racism, and sexism. These divisions make us vulnerable to responding to crisis with fear and hatred rather than solidarity, with competition rather than cooperation. These are the scenarios that turn hardship to horror. This means that even as we revolutionize our energy, economic, and political systems, we must do so in a way that also dismantles classism, white supremacy, patriarchy, xenophobia, and other social evils. If we are going to stand against that kind of structural evil, we will have to be standing on solid rock.

These necessary goals are so bold as to seem unreasonable. As has been the case in every social movement that has struggled for fundamental change, there will undoubtedly be setbacks and points at which there can be no reasonable expectation of success. The movements that persevere are those which find a form of hope, a reason to continue the struggle, even in those dark times. The conventional wisdom of the climate movement is that optimism is the only form of hope, for without optimism people will have no reason to continue the struggle. But optimism is a silly and fragile kind of hope. This is the most important point around which religious leaders must not follow the movement, but must provide moral leadership. I believe that a major reason why religious communities have played an important role in so many social movements is that in those moments of despair, when optimism is ridiculous, religious people base their hope on faith and continue the struggle. In those dark moments we continue to struggle for justice, because that is what it means to be faithful to the people we love, to be faithful to the world we love, and to be faithful to a God who loves the world.

Reconnecting and reaffirming those loves is the critical work of moral leadership in this movement. As much as we need to fully recognize the harsh truth of the nature of our challenge, we must just as fully affirm with gratitude the goodness and beauty that we love in the world, in God, and in each other. Our faithfulness to this love becomes the bedrock of a more resilient kind of hope, a hope that doesn’t bend to the winds of political feasibility. As Katy Allen, a rabbi and chaplain at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said at the recent HDS conference, “There’s never a time when it’s too late to redefine your hope.”

As religious leaders, we are not called to be optimistic; we are called to be faithful to our love. We are called to the climate movement, not merely to add respectability with our signatures on a petition. We are called not just to provide photo ops with collars out front. As people of faith, we are called to be the rock of the climate justice movement, the solid rock of hope that remains strong on the darkest days. Let us pray we are up to the challenge.



  1. West Virginia was ranked last in a 2012 Gallup poll measuring thirteen metrics to determine which states will be the best places to live in the future.
  2. For example, see the Media Matters for America report on the far-reaching political influence
    of the Koch brothers: Denise Robbins, “Myths and Facts about the Koch Brothers,” August 27, 2014.
  3. See Joel Rosenblatt and Jennifer Oldham, “Longmont’s Fracking Ban Tossed as Colorado Vote Looms,” July 25, 2014,

Tim DeChristopher is a second-year master of divinity student at Harvard Divinity School, studying for Unitarian Universalist ministry. The story of his 2008 act of civil disobedience disrupting a Bureau of Land Management oil and gas auction is chronicled in the film Bidder70.

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Narrative Wounds and Livable Fictions

Matthew Potts

In Review | Shelf Life The Sweet Hereafter, by Russell Banks. Harper Perennial, 257 pages, $14.99 paper.

Sweet Hereafter


The Sweet Hereafter, (1997) Alliance Communications Corporation.


Russell Banks is an author of provocative and moving fictions that explore American life in some of its most hidden and troubling aspects. He has been routinely celebrated for his accomplishments in American letters, an invitation to deliver the 2014 Ingersoll Lecture at Harvard Divinity School not least among his honors. His 1991 novel, The Sweet Hereafter, stands as perhaps his most tragic and well-known work, due in part to Atom Egoyan’s Academy Award–nominated film adaptation. Based on real events, the novel documents the aftermath of a school bus accident in a small Adirondack town that claims the lives of numerous children.1 Spare of plot, the work inhabits with unrelenting deliberation the awful movements of grief and loss in the fictional town of Sam Dent. The surviving driver of the bus, Dolores Driscoll, narrates the first and last sections of the novel, and in many ways her perspective governs the reader’s. Hers are literally the first and last words of this sad story, and her voice is one that follows the cadence of familiar folk wisdom. But a few of her folksy phrases stir questions of deep significance for the careful reader; they raise crucial questions especially for those of us who study, practice, or consider religion. Two phrases, I think, uniquely illuminate this novel: “bearing witness” and “fixing blame.”

In the final section of the novel, before she and her disabled husband, Abbott, head to the midway for the demolition derby and the final day of the county fair, Dolores recollects:

After the accident, I had attended the funerals, but alone, without even Abbott to accompany me; it was a way of bearing witness, I guess you could call it. I kept to myself, spoke to no one, and left immediately after the services. It was just something I had to do, something crucial between me and the children. I don’t think people, the adults, quite wanted me there among them, which was understandable, but I had to do it—for the children, who, if they could have spoken for themselves, would surely have asked me to attend their funerals and say a prayer for each of their dear departed souls. And I did. They would have thought me cowardly if I had stayed home instead. (224)2

Delores must bear witness here, somehow; she must speak for the children who cannot speak for themselves, despite the difficulty and strain this causes her. One cannot help but see a double meaning when reading Dolores’s words, because to bear a witness means not just to offer a witness, but also to suffer a witness, to endure a witness. And this additional—perhaps hidden—meaning demands further consideration from us, I think, especially when we consider how this novel’s plot turns almost entirely upon the false (we might say fictional) testimony of a witness, a witness just learning to speak for herself and who is already a victim in multiple senses of that word: Nichole Burnell, about whom more will shortly be written.

At the beginning of the novel Dolores also tells us that “Fixing motives is like fixing blame—the further away from the act you get, the harder it is to single out one thing as having caused it” (10). If The Sweet Hereafter is about bearing witness, then it is also about fixing blame in the wake of disaster, about this community’s struggle to make sense of an unspeakable tragedy and to do so by assigning some responsibility for it. The various mourners of Sam Dent attempt to fix (that is, to mend) the horror of the bus crash by fixing (that is, assigning) blame for the bus crash, by giving it some sense through a coherent story, through a reliable witness—a story and a witness, by the way, that Nichole finally and fictionally bears. But if the novel is the story of a sense-making, then it is also a meditation upon the intractability of senselessness, too, about the absolute impossibility of really fixing blame, of affixing or assigning it in any simple way to human persons in the wake of human tragedy. I think the novel also subtly asks whether the fixing of blame might somehow become the mending of blame, whether there might be some way to fix or repair the necessary and sacrificial processes of sense-making and blame-fixing that always follow tragedy, and what possibility there might be, if any, for real life in the aftermath of all that sense-making sacrifice. I’d like to suggest that the hidden meanings of these phrases, of bearing witness and of fixing blame, are meant to hang together in this novel, and that the way they do so should have profound impact for both fiction readers and for students of religion around questions of sacrifice, redemption, atonement, and forgiveness.

This notion of bearing witness in service of fixing blame is most fully realized, of course, in the character of Mitchell Stephens, the personal injury lawyer who comes to Sam Dent full of rage and righteous indignation and in search of justice. As Stephens tells us:

So that winter morning when I picked up the paper and read about this terrible event in a small town upstate, with all those kids lost, I knew instantly what the story was; I knew at once that it wasn’t an “accident” at all. There are no accidents. I don’t even know what the word means, and I never trust anyone who says he does. (91)

There’s always a reason for tragedy, Stephens says, and usually the reason is greed. The only way to check that greed is to manipulate it, to force those who budget tragedy into their bottom lines to assign it a considerable monetary cost, so that they will see it as a savings to “build the bus with the extra bolt, or add the extra yard of guardrail” (91). And so Stephens goes in search of what he needs: witnesses, people who can tell the right story. In order to hold someone accountable, in order to settle accounts, Stephens needs someone to give an account. What makes him a skilled and successful personal injury lawyer is his capacity for finding and cultivating the right kind of stories. The law, he demands, redeems loss—that is, losses can be paid for and prevented, as long as the right story is told to the right person in the right way. This telling is what Stephens calls the truth, and Stephens depends almost entirely upon Nichole Burnell to bear witness to his truth.

This notion of submission to the law for the sake of sense or meaning or truth is an idea that recurs in various ways throughout the work of various postmodern thinkers. Foucault, Lacan, and Derrida all posit variations on this theme, but I’d like to reference the work of Judith Butler. One of the claims of postmodern critical thought has been that the self, the subject or individual identity, is always conditioned by language. We come to realize ourselves, who we are and what we mean, through language. But this is also to say that the condition of our identity always resides outside ourselves, because all our understanding depends upon a language we have inherited and over which we have only limited control. As Butler writes:

If I try to give an account of myself, if I try to make myself recognizable and understandable, then I might begin with a narrative account of my life. But this narrative will be disoriented by what is not mine, or not mine alone. And I will, to some degree, have to make myself substitutable in order to make myself recognizable.3

That is, I have to put myself into words—words not my own, words we share—for you to recognize me as an identifiable subject, or even to recognize myself as one. In this way, Butler continues, it “is only in dispossession that I can and do give any account of myself.” The law is a prime example of this movement. Under the law, a truth does exist, but only as long as it can be told in terms that will satisfy the accounting that law requires. Thus, this type of witness “must substitute the manifestation” or outward revelation “for the inward self.”4

This idea of manifestation as an act of sacrifice, of bearing witness and giving an account of oneself as a form of submission to a regime of truth and thus also as a form of self-sacrifice, offers us a fascinating lens through which to read Nichole Burnell’s character in this novel. Nichole is one of the few survivors of the bus crash. She has been paralyzed by the accident, but because she sat directly behind Dolores on the bus, she offers Stephens precisely the witness he seeks. Nichole’s parents quickly cooperate with Stephens to arrange her testimony. However, complicating her witness is the secret of the sexual abuse she has suffered for years. As Nichole says, the “only truly valuable thing I owned now happened to be Daddy’s worst secret, and I meant to hold onto it” (180). By the time she goes to the courthouse to give her testimony, Nichole has decided that Stephens and the lawsuit must be stopped. Having eavesdropped on a conversation between her parents and Billy Ansel, whose nine-year-old twins have died in the crash and who opposes the suit, Nichole says:

At that moment, I hated my parents more than I ever had. I hated them for all that had gone before—Daddy for what he knew and had done, and Mom for what she didn’t know and hadn’t done—but I also hated them for this new thing, this awful lawsuit. The lawsuit was wrong. Purely and in God’s eyes. . . .

Why couldn’t they see that? Why couldn’t they just stand up like good people and say to Mr. Stephens, “No, forget the lawsuit. We’ll get by somehow on our own. It’s too harmful to too many people.” (197)

Nichole believes that the movements of law, of legal blame-fixing, will somehow collaborate in Sam Dent’s continuing ruin. Because she realizes that legal blame can only be fixed upon the school district or the state if it is not fixed upon Dolores, Nichole lies and says Dolores was speeding, that she was truly to blame, effectively ending the viability of her parents’—and Mitchell Stephens’s—legal claim. But what’s really interesting here is that this substitution of fault, this false witness before the law, also somehow reveals another truth between Nichole and her father. Worried that her lie may cause trouble for Dolores, she asks her father if Dolores will suffer any consequences. He replies,

“No. Nobody wants to sue Dolores. She’s one of us. . . . Everyone knows she’s suffered plenty.”

“But everyone will blame her now, won’t they?”

“Most will, yes. Those that don’t know the truth will blame Dolores. People have got to have somebody to blame, Nichole.”

“But we know the truth” . . . “Don’t we?”

“Yes. . . . We know the truth, Nichole. You and I.” (219)

In this substitution of guilt, wherein Nichole substitutes her story for another, a false witness manages finally to fix blame upon her father.

So: Nichole has submitted to a legal regime of truth, but has manipulated that regime to her own purposes, too. She has sacrificed her story in order to tell a more necessary one; she’s subverted and undone one truth in order to attain a different, more demanding one. She has given an account of herself in the only manner she can, in the externally imposed language of law, under the narrative frame of deposition, but she’s also found a way to resist the lie of that lawfulness and assert a better justice. But the story she offers, for all it achieves, still involves a sacrifice as well: it fixes blame for all this sadness entirely upon Dolores Driscoll.

Dolores doesn’t realize this until she heads to the grandstand on the final day of the county fair to watch the demolition derby. She takes her place at the top of the grandstand with her disabled husband, Abbott, and an inebriated Billy Ansel takes a seat next to them. When Nichole Burnell arrives, some folks carry her wheelchair up the grandstand, too, accompanied by a polite round of applause from the crowd. Billy tells the Driscolls that Stephens couldn’t get Nichole to testify as he wanted, so it “looks like we won’t be seeing any lawsuits, after all. Which is fast bringing this town back together. . . . The girl has done us all, every person in town, a valuable service. Even you, Abbott. Even you, Dolores, believe it or not” (244). When pressed, Ansel admits that Nichole has lied and has blamed Dolores for the accident. This occasions a significant emotional ambivalence in Dolores. On the one hand, she says:

I felt as if a great weight that I had been lugging around for eight or nine months, since the day of the accident, had been lifted from me. A huge stone or an albatross or a yoke. One minute it was there, and because it had been there for so long, I had grown used to it; and the next minute it was gone, flown away, disappeared, and I was suddenly able to recognize what a terrible weight I had been carrying all these months. That’s strange, isn’t it? You’d expect me to feel angry, maybe, unjustly accused and all that. But I didn’t. Not at all. I felt relieved. And, therefore, grateful. Grateful to Billy Ansel, for revealing what Nichole had done, and grateful to Nichole for having done it. (247–248)

But on the other hand, as she watches her old station wagon (and the former school bus) Boomer win the demolition derby, she feels “utterly and permanently separated from the town of Sam Dent,” as if she and the victims of the crash are

The citizens of a wholly different town now, as if we were a town of solitaries living in a sweet hereafter, and no matter how the people of Sam Dent treated us, whether they memorialized or despised us, whether they cheered for our destruction or applauded our victory over adversity, they did it to meet their needs, not ours. Which, since it could be no other way, was exactly as it should be. (254)

In other words, Dolores realizes that she has been set apart by the town, made into a sacrifice in order to serve the town’s need to fix blame and make sense of the bus crash. In some ways, she is realizing in full what Abbott has told Mitchell Stephens earlier in the novel: that “Blame creates comprehension” (150). To comprehend this loss, Sam Dent has exiled Dolores. It is a dark and somewhat tragic conclusion to a darkly tragic tale, which—as Dolores has said—is exactly as it should be. But another thing Abbott says to Mitchell Stephens further complicates the novel’s ending. When telling Stephens they won’t join in the suit, Abbott says that only the people of Sam Dent, “who have known her all her life . . . can decide her guilt or innocence. And if Dolores . . . has committed a crime, then it is against [the people of Sam Dent], not the state, so they are the ones who must decide her punishment too” (151). The law can’t really fix blame, Abbott suggests; only Sam Dent can. And as Dolores rises to leave the derby, having been sacrificed by Nichole and by the town, the people of the town rise and help her get Abbott down the steps, in a gesture of courtesy that mirrors Nichole’s arrival. The ambiguous punishment Dolores will receive, it seems, is to remain a part of this town, and to feel the courtesy, even the care, of its people.

All this gestures toward something poignant and important for us as readers of this book. As Frederic Jameson has said, we cannot not narrate; we cannot but tell stories which aim to make sense of a sometimes senseless world.5 But even if we cannot resist the compulsion to bear witness and to fix blame, we might—we must—also recognize that the stories we tell will always involve a sacrifice of sorts, and that our making sense of the past so we can live on into a sensible future must reckon with the sacrificial victims of our sense-making and our blame-fixing in real, material ways. Even as we offer witness and assign blame, we must leave space for the suffering our witnessing will generate; we must remain prepared to mend the wounds our blame will often additionally inflict on our fellows. As we tell our stories, we should allow our encounter with others also to undo our certainties, and we should accept that those others might also come, rightly, to reject the sacrifices we offer. As Butler writes, “if we speak and try to give an account from this place,” this place of uncertainty, of openness, of vulnerability, “we will not be irresponsible, or if we are, we will surely be forgiven.”6

This is what I think is at stake in this sad novel, and in its deeply unsatisfying, although altogether appropriate and moving, conclusion. But however important this lesson might be for readers of Banks’s fiction in general, I believe it may be especially relevant for students and ministers of religion like me, of the Christian religion in particular. Christianity comes in for some criticism in this book. As Dolores says, “Oh, like most persons, we go to church . . . but we’re not religious persons, Abbott and I. Although, since the accident there have been numerous times when I have wished that I was. Religion being the main way the unexplainable gets explained. God’s will and all” (26). Billy Ansel is a bit more forthright about his religious disposition. “The Christians,” he says,

Talk about God’s will and all—that only made me angry, although I suppose I am glad that they were able to comfort themselves with such talk. But I could not bring myself to attend any of the memorial services that the various churches in Sam Dent and the neighboring towns invited me to. It was enough to have to listen to Reverend Dreiser at the twins’ funeral. He wanted us all to believe that God was like a father who had taken our children for himself. Some father.

The only father I had known was the one who had abandoned his children to others.” (73)

For Billy, “the religious explanation [is] just another sly denial of the facts” (79); it is just another bearing of witness, just another fixing of blame, which is implicated in all the same confusions and complexities of offering and suffering, affixing and mending, that any other narrative explanation might be. To be sure, the offensive theodicies of God’s will for dead children, as well as the thin atonement theologies of a Son sacrificed to the Father (both referenced by Billy) that Christians have sometimes resorted to in the aftermath of tragedy—whether that tragedy is an accident in the Adirondacks or a crucifixion in Judea—seem to be as desperate for comprehension, sense, law, and justice as anything Mitchell Stephens says in this book. We cannot not narrate, and once we do, we can’t avoid the sacrifices and sins each telling will entail. But as the grandstand on the midway teaches us, there might yet be more to this story; or at least, there might be more to our story and more to what we are obliged to do with our story once it’s told. Because even if we cannot undo the past, and cannot but fix blame upon a past we can’t undo, we might still find a gracious way of living into the future with our story and with one another in mutual care, concern, and community.

Nichole’s story demands a sacrifice, yes, but it’s a sacrifice Sam Dent can live with, one even Dolores can live with, unlike all the other stories—legal, religious, whatever—that are on offer. Nichole’s story is a fiction, but it’s a livable fiction, it’s a fiction with a future, a fiction that rises up with Dolores and Abbott Driscoll and escorts them down the steep stairs of the grandstand and back into the tragic life of that town. Whatever else the Christian story says about sacrifice, it says something like this, too, and associates with these necessary, narrative wounds such gracious and difficult aspirations as forgiveness, redemption, and atonement. Insofar as fiction, and Banks’s fiction in particular, reminds me of such gracious aspirations, then for me at least it remains a religious sort of storytelling, a bearing of witness that fixes its blame even as it invites and invokes a better future.



  1. According to Banks, the novel was based on a newspaper clipping about the 1989 school bus crash in Alton, Texas, that killed twenty-one children and injured forty-nine.
  2. All quotes are from the original edition: Russell Banks, The Sweet Hereafter (HarperCollins, 1991).
  3. Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself (Fordham University Press, 2005), 37.
  4. According to Butler, revelatory narration “does not ‘express’ a self but takes [the self’s] place, and it accomplishes that substitution through an inversion of the particular self into an outward appearance. . . . [W]e have to understand manifestation itself as an act of sacrifice.” Ibid., 114.
  5. See Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Duke University Press, 1991).
  6. Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, 136.

Matthew Potts joined the faculty of Harvard Divinity School in 2013 as Assistant Professor of Ministry Studies. This essay was adapted from a talk he delivered on November 5, 2014, as part of an HDS-sponsored series of seminars, “The Sacrifice of Children on the Altar of Capitalism: Bearing Witness in the Writings of Russell Banks” (held in advance of Banks’s November 5, 2014, Ingersoll Lecture).

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New Rooms in the Interfaith Movement

Eboo Patel

Interfaith illustration



Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

In the opening session of an interfaith youth core conference a few years ago, a Chicago pastor took the microphone and introduced himself. He spoke about how much he had gained from his Buddhist meditation practice, expressed disdain for Republicans in power, and proclaimed how excited he was to be in a friendly space with people of other faiths. Finally, he noted his frustration that a particular type of Christian was always absent from such gatherings, saying: “There are too many conservative evangelicals who claim the mantle of my faith, who believe that Jesus is the only way, that Christians have the exclusive truth, and who focus their energy on trying to bring others to their view rather than expanding their own spiritual horizons. I find that I have more in common with people like you than with people like them.”1

There was nodding around the room. It seemed that some of the people who had come to the gathering had heard this sort of thing before. The pastor passed the microphone off with a flush of pride in his face.

It arrived in the hands of a young man who had recently graduated from the University of Illinois, who was probably two decades the pastor’s junior, and who looked calmly at the pastor and said, “My name is Nicholas Price, and I think you are talking about me.” It could have been an ugly moment, except for how Nick handled it. He simply said that he was an evangelical Christian, had been very active in the large evangelical campus group InterVarsity Christian Fellowship as an undergraduate, and had recently accepted a staff position at the organization. He’d majored in religious studies with a concentration in Islam, and he believed his faith called upon him to seek to convert Muslims and also to cooperate with them. While he was deeply committed to the former, he understood that this space was dedicated to the latter.

I had heard the sentiments expressed by that Chicago pastor in organized interfaith movement events so often that I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about them had it not been for Nick’s presence and response.

In his self-introduction, the pastor had succinctly articulated what I’ve come to call the three main rooms in the house of interfaith cooperation: liberal theology, progressive politics, and spiritual enrichment. Moreover, he proclaimed that those views weren’t just rooms in the house, but the front porch and the foundation as well.

The primary purpose of interfaith work is as a form of bridging social capital—building relationships among religiously diverse people who have different political, theological, and spiritual views.

For the pastor, interfaith cooperation was a logical extension of his theological liberalism, political progressivism, and spiritual sensibilities. More to the point, not only was his engagement in interfaith cooperation predicated on those perspectives, but he believed that they were prerequisites for any engagement with interfaith cooperation. Which is precisely why Nick perplexed him. Here was a theologically and politically conservative young man with clear spiritual limits who was interested in building relationships with people of different faiths.

The moment raised a set of fundamental questions for me about interfaith work, the most obvious being: Who is excluded in a movement that trumpets inclusivity, diversity, and relationship-building? Nick had taken a different route to the house of interfaith cooperation and, when he arrived, was greeted by a guard on the front porch and told in no uncertain terms that there wasn’t a place for him. My experience during fifteen years in interfaith work is that this is pretty common. Evangelicals are on the outside and are frequently invoked as somewhere between the foil and the enemy.

The second issue it raised for me was more fundamental—namely, what is the purpose of interfaith work? Is it to bring together theological liberals and political progressives of various religions to share how their different faiths brought them to similar worldviews? That’s what the pastor wanted, and what he was accustomed to in such settings. He had come to the event hoping to commune with his friends from a range of faiths who felt comfortable in those three rooms, and perhaps to invite a few more folks in. But if this approach excludes, and potentially raises hostility toward, faith groups, then it ought to raise the question of just what it is we think we are doing in a movement called “interfaith.”

Social capital theory, as developed by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, guides us toward what I think is a better way forward. Putnam writes, “social capital refers to social networks, norms of reciprocity, mutual assistance and trustworthiness.”2 Such networks have concrete value in a number of ways, ranging from networks in which people help others find jobs, to networks like neighborhood watch clubs, which reduce crime, thereby helping not only the people who participate directly, but also bystanders.

One of Putnam’s crucial distinctions is between “bonding” and “bridging” social capital. Bonding social capital brings people from like identities and perspectives together in tight networks, whereas bridging brings those from different identities and perspectives together. Putnam claims both are important, likening the first to sociological Super Glue and the second to sociological WD-40. He goes on to make this crucial point: “a society that has only bonding social capital will look like Belfast or Bosnia—segregated into mutually hostile camps. . . . [A] pluralist democracy requires lots of bridging social capital. . . .”3

In his more recent work, Putnam, along with David Campbell, writes about how religious divisions in America have changed over the course of the past few generations.4 The strongest divisions are no longer between people of different religions, but between people of different religious intensities. More theologically conservative evangelicals and Catholics, for example, are bonded in conservative politics. According to Putnam and Campbell, one fallout of this dynamic has been to drive a large group of people away from religion, period, explaining one of the reasons for the dramatic rise of what sociologists are calling the religious “nones.” Another fallout is that the theologically liberal, politically progressive, and spiritually expansive have needed to find spaces to gather and commiserate. One of those places has been in the interfaith movement. And so, interfaith work, as it is currently organized, has become a form of bonding social capital between people who have similar political, theological, and spiritual views.

But if the key divisions in American religious life are no longer among Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, but between conservative religious believers of multiple traditions, on the one hand, and a combination of liberal believers and secularists, on the other, then the bonding social capital nature of the interfaith movement effectively serves to widen and deepen that polarization.

I believe this is the wrong path for interfaith work to take. This doesn’t mean that bringing people from different religions together to advance progressive politics or liberal theology or spiritual enrichment is bad, only that this is not the central task of interfaith work. The primary purpose and greatest value of interfaith work is as a form of bridging social capital—building relationships among religiously diverse people who have different political, theological, and spiritual perspectives. Effective interfaith work would promote the following perspective: We recognize the deep and different worldviews you bring to the table, and we believe that you can have powerful relationships anyway. Movements exist to solve particular problems. The problem that interfaith work should be seeking to solve is the polarization of people who orient around religion differently.

While there are many groups who probably feel at a slight angle to interfaith work—atheists come to mind—I focus here on evangelicals for three reasons. The first is the aggressive hostility that I have witnessed within interfaith circles toward evangelicals, often expressed in the notion that evangelicals (and, yes, the paintbrush used is frequently this broad) represent the opposite of the movement. The second concerns the sheer numbers we’re talking about when it comes to evangelicals, who make up somewhere between one-third and 40 percent of America. If interfaith work is defined by building relationships among people who orient around religion differently, and if people within the movement are openly antagonistic to a group that makes up 40 percent of the nation’s total population, then I think this calls into question the effectiveness of the endeavor.

Third, I believe these attitudes get evangelicals wrong, especially given recent shifts within the community. Nick, the young man I spoke about at the beginning, is an interesting illustration of this. In a series of articles for Relevant Magazine, he’s been outlining an evangelical mode for both the Great Commission and the Great Cooperation. And he’s far from alone. Not only have progressive evangelicals like Jim Wallis and Brian McLaren been writing more directly about the imperative of interfaith cooperation, more mainline and moderately conservative evangelicals—Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Bob Roberts—are also a part of what I’m calling the relational turn in evangelical thinking. The focus here is not just on encouraging people to have a personal relationship with Jesus—the heartbeat of evangelical theology and conversion activities—but is on Jesus as an exemplar who built relationships with people of all backgrounds with unconditional love. Increasingly, I’m hearing these mainline to moderately conservative evangelicals underscore that an important part of that unconditionality is that Jesus did not require people to believe as he did to love them, and he did not use his love for them as a bait-and-switch to get them to follow him. For the evangelicals I’m talking about, following Jesus means several things. One is having a personal relationship with him as Lord and Savior. The second is seeking converts to that path. The third is having relationships with people from a diversity of backgrounds in an unconditional way, as Jesus did, not as bait for conversion but as an expression of religiosity. As Bob Roberts says, “I love others not to convert them, I love them because I am converted.”

Finally, evangelicals excel in an area that I think should be the primary locus for interfaith cooperation—namely, the strengthening of civil society in largely noncontroversial ways, in civic engagement. By this I mean everything from Little League to volunteerism to disaster relief to social services. These are areas that the vast majority of people agree on, that are absolutely crucial to the functioning of our civil society, and that can be life-and-death matters, especially for people on the margins. Moreover, many people are inspired by their faith or philosophical traditions to engage in them. Mobilizing people from different traditions around malaria prevention or care for AIDS orphans will likely not cause many arguments, and it will bring much-needed human and other resources to crucial efforts. And these activities serve as perfect vehicles to have interfaith conversations around. After doing an interfaith fundraiser to purchase bed nets to prevent malaria, you organize an interfaith dialogue asking the simple question about what stories/heroes/scripture/philosophy from your tradition inspires you to do this work.

These also happen to be areas where evangelicals excel. Institutions like World Vision and Habitat for Humanity, founded and run by evangelicals, not only do exceptional civic work, their activities already serve as spaces where people from multiple faiths cooperate.

Interfaith work is when Muslims and Jews who disagree vehemently about where to draw the line in the Middle East, or whether to draw one at all, choose to cooperate on building schools in Vietnam rather than arguing about Jerusalem. Does this approach ignore the elephant in the room? I don’t think so. There are dozens of spaces where people dissect the elephant, and very few where we are talking about the other animals, that is, the other conversations we might have, the various areas where we might cooperate, and the clear convergence points of our different traditions.

At Interfaith Youth Core, our big push in recent years is around training and mobilizing interfaith leaders. We believe the key to changing the conversation about religion from conflict to cooperation is people who are committed to highlighting common ground and creating programs of cooperation: interfaith leaders. Any movement needs leaders. I don’t just mean enthusiasts, people who are willing to attend and organize events. I mean people who are skilled in keeping the priorities of that movement front and center.

Interfaith cooperation is actually a separate house from the houses of liberal theology, progressive politics, and spiritual enrichment—just as conservative theology and conservative politics are different houses. In a highly religiously diverse and devout society, at a moment of global religious tension and conflict, positive relationships among people who orient around religion differently are absolutely necessary. Those relationships cannot be based on political, theological, and spiritual perspectives because, if we are doing our work well, the people who enter the house of interfaith cooperation will disagree mightily on such matters. The goal of the architects of the house of interfaith cooperation—the interfaith leaders—should be to find frameworks, activities, and conversations where those people can both build relationships and do productive things together in civic life.

Part of what concerns me about the position I’m taking is that people might agree with it—and choose to move out of the house of interfaith cooperation. In other words, they might say: “I understand that people have deeply felt political and theological differences and interfaith work should be about bringing those folks together. But actually what I think is really important is building a religiously diverse movement around theological liberalism, or political progressivism, or conservatism.”

The most important house in a diverse democracy is the one that brings people who disagree on some fundamental things together on other fundamental things. It is a house that has been ignored for too long, and it is falling into disrepair. It is worth quoting the great American Catholic thinker John Courtney Murray here at length:

[The strength of pluralism is in] the coexistence within the one political community of groups who hold divergent and incompatible views with regard to religious questions—those ultimate questions that concern the nature and destiny of man within a universe that stands under the reign of God. Pluralism therefore implies disagreement and dissension within the community. But it also implies a community within which there must be agreement and consensus. There is no small political problem here. If society is to be at all a rational process, some set of principles must motivate the general participation of all religious groups, despite their dissensions, in the oneness of the community. On the other hand, these common principles must not hinder the maintenance by each group of its own different identity. The problem of pluralism is, of course, practical; as a project, its “working out” is an exercise in civic virtue. But the problem is also theoretical; its solution is an exercise in political intelligence that will lay down, as the basis for the “working out,” some sort of doctrine.5

At this moment in our political history in which there is so much polarization, it is no small problem indeed.

Vibrant interfaith work is going to require the best people giving their best effort and doing their best work—and, yes, subordinating some of their other principles and identities some of the time—to write the next chapter in the glorious story of diverse people having a common life together.



  1. This is an edited version of the Greeley Lecture for Peace and Social Justice at Harvard Divinity School, which Patel delivered on October 25, 2012.
  2. Robert D. Putnam and Lewis Feldstein, Better Together: Restoring the American Community (Simon and Schuster, 2009), 2. See also Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon and Schuster, 2000).
  3. Putnam and Feldstein, Better Together, 2–3.
  4. Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (Simon and Schuster, 2010).
  5. John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (Sheed and Ward, 1960), xiii–xiv.

Eboo Patel is the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based nonprofit that partners with higher education to elevate the civic priority of interfaith cooperation. Patel is the author of Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America (Beacon Press, 2013) and Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, in the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Beacon Press, 2010).

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Performing World Missions in 1911

Dana L. Robert

In Review | Books Faith in Objects: American Missionary Expositions in the Early Twentieth Century,
by Erin L. Hasinoff. Palgrave Macmillan, 286 pages, $95.

Faith in Objects


Stewards as Buddhists, Buddhist Temple. Buddhism Court, Hall of Religions, the World in Boston, 1911. Missionary Research Collection, the Burke Theological Library, Columbia University


On April 22, 1911, president Taft sent a telegram to Boston. Four hundred miles from the White House, the presidential flag unfurled, a giant electric star was lit, and a choir of five thousand—accompanied by full orchestra—broke into the national anthem. Taft’s personal greeting launched the World in Boston, a month-long exposition that showcased dozens of exhibits composed of cultural artifacts from around the world. Over the next month, four hundred thousand people converged on the Great Hall of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association, then the largest exhibition space in town. Thousands of volunteers sang in choirs, marched in parades, and populated living tableaux. Twenty thousand volunteer stewards were involved in running the event.

In contemporary perspective, such an outpouring of public participation seems understandable for Independence Day festivities along the Charles River, or the Boston Marathon, or the World Series. Yet the event that drew such crowds in 1911 was the first missionary exposition held in the United States. The thousands of stewards and choir members came from local churches. The visitors were attracted by a combination of pageantry, music, and exotic artifacts that promised to bring them a taste of the faraway worlds to which they sent their mission dollars. Real live missionaries and native converts staged “object lessons” that illustrated the contrast between Christianity and “heathenism,” and that demonstrated traditional customs and religious practices from China, India, Turkey, Puerto Rico, Japan, and other locales. Exhibits on American Indians, educational outreach among African Americans, and the life of the child—a favorite theme of women’s missionary societies—provided insight into other mission concerns. A masque oratorio, Pageant of Darkness and Light, was performed for ten thousand onlookers a day, underscoring “the historical and geographical advance of Christianity” (22).

The multivalence of this event—a simultaneously entertaining, instructional, and triumphalist rendering of American global ambitions—has received able treatment from Erin L. Hasinoff, in Faith in Objects: American Missionary Expositions in the Early Twentieth Century. Hasinoff is an anthropologist with the American Museum of Natural History and was a postdoctoral fellow in museum anthropology at the Bard Graduate Center. But her interest in missionary collections began when, as a student at Harvard Divinity School, she explored the Pacific holdings of the Peabody Museum—right around the corner from HDS. There, she was startled to discover both the major role played by missionaries in sourcing collections and the lack of scholarly literature on the subject. Her opening research questions were: “What are missionary collections, and how do they differ from ethnographic collections? Why were they collected? Where and for whom were they exhibited?” (xi). She pursued the subject for her dissertation in anthropology at Columbia University. The resulting book opens up the world of missionary exhibitions through a thick description and anthropological analysis of the World in Boston, the first but neither the largest nor the last missionary exhibition held in the United States.

Hasinoff treats the subject through three lenses: religion as “sensational form, charity, and lived religion” (6). Sensational form refers to the way in which physical religious objects embody religious practice and meaning. A large part of the book focuses on how the costumes, physical layout of the exhibits, material objects, photographs, and moving pictures shaped the meaning of the event for its participants. The “technology,” or media, of the exhibition was intrinsic to its meaning. The second religious aspect, that of charity, provided a focal point to encourage volunteerism, the work of missionary relief agencies, and other forms of donation that defined the meaning of Christian community. Hasinoff explores how the event was constructed to move participants toward charitable outreach, and even to choose careers as missionaries. Third, as an example of “lived religion,” the World in Boston “performed” missions. Participants experienced deepened fellowship, religious habits such as prayer, and the stimulation of religious imagination. The thousands of volunteers, mostly women, presumably impacted the spiritual lives of their home churches. In short, the missionary exposition was an act of evangelization that converted its participants, even as it showcased the conversionary work of American missionaries among religious and cultural “others.” In reference to the material turn in the field of anthropology, Hasinoff writes, “I give primacy to the object world of the Boston exposition by considering how a curious assemblage of things, in a temporary homespun environment that collapsed space and time, offered prospects of comprehending evangelism” (12).

The book unfolds in five sections. Common to anthropological approaches, the parts are not so much chronological as overlapping, with the author swirling back around her core themes to produce a layered description of the event. Part One deals with the historical background to the exhibition, including a brief history of missionary expositions, and of the important missionary collection that in 1900 became part of the American Museum of Natural History with the help of Franz Boas. Part Two details the physical layout of the exhibits, and walks an imaginary visitor through the space. Visitors could visit Japanese homes, a walled Chinese town, Indian women’s quarters, a Turkish bazaar, and a Bedouin tent. Lincoln’s cabin stood near the hull of a slave ship. Volunteers introduced various religions both by showing physical objects and by demonstrating their practices. Handicrafts, missionary relics, and mission literature drew visitors into the spirit of the exhibition—and, of course, a gift shop enabled everyone to take home souvenirs. The second floor of the hall showcased mission education, including slide shows, models of mission buildings, and films. The highlight of the exhibition was the Pageant of Darkness and Light, accompanied by a ladies’ orchestra and a volunteer choir of six to eight hundred singers. Hasinoff also discusses the publicity, guide books, and “first impressions” of the exhibition, including the voices of its critics.

Part Three analyzes the educational philosophy of the exhibition, and its use of objects for didactic purposes. The goal of creating an educated populace was common to the museum culture of the time. Hasinoff places in tension the educational goals of the organizers and the public’s desire to be entertained at places like Coney Island and other purveyors of popular amusements. That a theatrical pageant, replete with costumes and music, was the chief attraction of the exhibition generated anxiety about the fine line between entertainment and enlightenment. Organizers kept a deliberate focus on prayer to mitigate the danger that the exhibition might stoop to the level of mere amusement.

Part Four focuses on the ethnographic context of the World in Boston, by reconstructing how the earlier missionary exhibition of 1900 came to form part of the collection of the Museum of Natural History in New York. Hasinoff discusses the structure and rationale of the missionary exhibit—from requests that missionaries send in artifacts to the depositing of them in the museum. One particularly interesting part of the narrative is how anthropologist Franz Boas hoped to use missionaries for systematic collection of ethnological objects. Although he remained frustrated by the fragmentary nature of missionary collections, Boas nevertheless supported their use for instructional purposes, and to document comparative religions. On the other hand, mission leaders hoped to use missionary exhibits as evidence of how Christianity led to social improvements, as illustrations of “before” and “after.” “Missionary object lessons were underpinned by the homogenizing philosophy of making ‘them’ like ‘us,’ or, in other terms, displacing the alterity of ‘heathenism’ with the sameness of Christianity over time” (111). Under the sponsorship of the interdenominational Missionary Education Movement, some of the collection ultimately became a traveling show to raise resources for the mission education programs of local churches. Amazingly, the traveling portion of the exhibit filled eight freight train cars (144)! Hasinoff argues that Boas’s collaboration in creating missionary collections, and supporting their use for educational outreach, muddies the received wisdom that anthropologists and missionaries were pitted absolutely against each other. She concludes that “while the object systems and practices of missions and anthropology were institutionalized and divorced by the early twentieth century, they were permeable” (132).

The final section of the book analyzes the various parts played by human participants in the exhibition, ranging from missionaries to docents, volunteer stewards, and “native helpers.” As cultural translators, missionaries with deep familiarity of other cultures acted out the roles of indigenous religious practitioners. The role of the “native helper” was probably the most striking to visitors, as notable Christian converts symbolized the success of missions and thereby advocated for their further support. Both missionaries and converts were living witnesses to the transformative power of missions. Hasinoff notes the overwhelming popularity of Nellie Ma Dwe Yaba from Burma, who embodied a convincing apologetic for conversion to Christianity (166–168). In the epilogue, Hasinoff returns to her own research methodology and relationship with the materials she studied, arguing that the chief result of the exhibition was the “sense of fellowship” it set up between engaged participants and the practices of Christian missions (194).

In the spirit of reflexivity that marks both the author’s methodology and her subject, as a historian of Christian mission I see many strengths in this fine book. Hasinoff tackles her subject matter with a deft mixture of description and theory that allows the reader to experience it on multiple levels ranging from straight description to a theoretical tour de force. Despite her annoying habit of summarizing where she has just been and announcing where she is going next, Hasinoff’s text is a well-written contribution to the burgeoning field of the anthropology of Christianity. It also brings the literature on ethnographic collections together with that of the lived-religion approach in religious studies. Another commendable aspect of the book is its careful interweaving of postmodern perspectives on American religious expansionism, with respect for the participants of the missionary exposition. The book retains a scholarly yet sympathetic tone that makes it a fine example of postcolonial writing on the American missionary movement and its importance for its supporters.

But, of course, the anthropological approach has its limitations. A historian of Christianity would have emphasized aspects that Hasinoff did not. Where her anthropological method universalizes by embedding conclusions in theory, a historian sees a specific manifestation of time and place, grounded in the Congregational and Baptist history of Christianity in eastern Massachusetts. The exposition reeked of Congregationalist culture, from its chief organizer, Samuel Capen, to the name of its bulletin, Exposition Herald (clearly modeled on the American Board’s Missionary Herald), to its choice of mission fields for its exhibits. Even the seal of the conference, a Middle Eastern–looking “Oriental pilgrim” (55) standing against a cross over the seal of Boston, signified both the Pilgrim roots of its organizers and their contemporary worry about the deteriorating conditions for religious minorities in the Ottoman Empire.

One way to illustrate its local distinctives is to compare the material and intellectual culture of the World in Boston with that of the Centenary Celebration of Methodist Missions held in Columbus, Ohio, in 1919. For example, the Boston exhibit on Negroes of the South focused on the abolitionist heritage, with depictions of slave trading juxtaposed with schools for “freedmen” sponsored by the American Missionary Association (AMA), the antislavery Congregationalist missionary society. “Blacksmith and carpentry shops and a printing press demonstrated the successful forms of industrial and vocational training introduced to freed slaves” by Northern missionaries (42). With Booker T. Washington and the famous singers from Fisk University (founded by the AMA) invited for the occasion, the exhibition emphasized the uplifting of the African American through the work of northern educators, including explicit support for the “Tuskegee model” of practical training.

The Centenary Celebration of the Methodists, however, showcased the African American not only as an “object lesson” of missionary benevolence, but as a participant in it. American Methodism was an interracial movement from its beginnings and included a large southern constituency, both black and white. The conservative white, southern influence was reflected not in an abolitionist display, but in “a cotton patch antebellum slavery scene.”1 Yet the centenary celebration as a whole commemorated the mission legacy of John Stewart, an African American missionary to the Wyandot Indians, whose divine call a century before had launched the Methodist Missionary Society. More than one thousand black Methodists marched in a parade and made a pilgrimage to Stewart’s gravesite.2 Among the conference’s female speakers was Martha Drummer, the well-known black nurse-deaconess who ran her own Methodist mission in Angola, supported by the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Drummer appealed for increased support for African missions.3 Although both the Boston and the Columbus fairs demonstrated the racial paternalism of the period, the Congregationalist approach focused on white missions for African Americans, while the Methodists celebrated mission leadership with African Americans. The Congregationalist exhibition concretized the triumphs of educational uplift, while the Methodists affirmed the racial equalizing of evangelical conversion.

Contrasts between the two missionary exhibitions demonstrate that local, historical, and intellectual contexts are just as important as thick description in interpreting the public religious festivals of the early twentieth century. The beliefs and mission practices of participants at missionary exhibitions were defined by time, place, social class, race, gender, and denominational tradition. In the final analysis, Erin Hasinoff’s treatment of the World in Boston is an excellent and enjoyable piece of scholarship. But a mission historian like me also longs for a deeper investigation into the particular “faiths” behind the Faith in Objects.



  1. Christopher J. Anderson, The Centenary Celebration of American Methodist Missions: The 1919 World’s Fair of Evangelical Americanism (Edwin Mellen Press, 2012), 7.
  2. The guide for the pilgrimage was the Rev. Edward L. Gilliam, president of the Columbus NAACP. Anderson, Centenary Celebration (73). The parade and pilgrimage conveyed black solidarity and pan-Methodist identity, and staked a claim for “participatory democracy” during the Jim Crow era (75). On “Negro Day,” a bishop from the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church gave a speech on the importance of Stewart as a model for black leadership (76).
  3. Ibid., 169–170.

Dana L. Robert is the Truman Collins Professor of World Christianity and History of Mission and director of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at Boston University School of Theology. Her most recent book is Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), now in its sixth printing.

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See also: Books, Christianity

Red Flags for American Jews?

Robert Israel

When the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life issued its portentous findings about Jewish Americans in late 2013, alarmed reactions quickly followed.1 In a statement to The New York Times, Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, summed up what many of his co-religionists felt. “It’s a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of their Jewish identification,” he said.2

Consider one of the Pew survey’s major findings and you’ll understand why: One in five American Jews expressed a preference for choosing the social aspects of Jewish life over a devotion to Judaism’s religious tenets. According to the report, “The percentage of U.S. adults who say they are Jewish when asked about their religion has declined by about half since the late 1950s and currently is a little less than 2%.”

What’s particularly alarming about this statistic is that the gap between the secular and religious among American Jews is widening, despite efforts by the organized Jewish community to prevent it from doing so. All three major branches of Judaism—Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox—invest heavily in Jewish identification programs with their undeclared motto: Once a Jew, always a Jew, from the cradle to the grave. While the three branches of Judaism may argue about approaches to this effort, they are unified around promoting adherence to the Jewish lifecycle continuum, inculcating Jews into embracing Jewish religious practices. By employing twenty-first-century technologies—email blasts, computerized telephone banks, and postings on social media—each branch of Judaism works feverishly to hold on to the faithful and to welcome back those who may have strayed. Yet these programs are not reaching their intended targets. Bluntly stated, in a pluralistic America, it is easy for many to live on the outskirts or to reject Judaism altogether. According to the Pew survey, many Jews are choosing to do just that.

“Secularism has a long tradition in Jewish life in America, and most U.S. Jews seem to recognize this,” the Pew report stated, adding: “62% [of the respondents] say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15% say it is mainly a matter of religion. Even among Jews by religion [those respondents who identified their religion as Jewish, as opposed to those who identified as ‘Jews of no religion,’ also commonly called secular or cultural Jews], more than half (55%) say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture . . . [while] two-thirds say it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish.”

Andrés Spokoiny, CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, said Jewish groups must either recast current Jewish continuity programs or face greater losses. In an op-ed about the Pew report published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), he wrote: “If we don’t want to lose 30 percent of our people, we need to work much harder at developing alternative avenues for Jewish engagement. We significantly underinvest in Jewish culture as a way to foster Jewish identity.”3

Spokoiny further argued that the Pew report “makes self-evident that one of the main tasks of Jewish leadership needs to be opening as many gateways as possible to Jewish life without being judgmental about which ones are more authentic. The more doors we open, the more people will come in.”

An example of opening doors can be seen in the founding, just over a decade ago, of Keshet (the Hebrew word for “rainbow”), an organization that advocates “for the full equality and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Jews in Jewish life.”4 As same-sex marriage becomes law in an increasing number of U.S. states, Keshet will undoubtedly gain a wider following, having already spread from its headquarters in Boston to include chapters in Denver and San Francisco. Gay Jews are out of the closet, and organized Jewish communities—with the exception of the Orthodox community—are warming to them.

The Pew report’s main focus, however, was on heterosexual unions, specifically intermarried couples and their children, whether biological or adopted. This group is more likely to produce children and grandchildren that are not being raised as Jews, the Pew report stated, unfurling another red flag of warning for American Jews. If these warnings illustrate a drift of American Jews away from Judaism’s spiritual core, what does the future hold? What specific steps can be taken to better embrace those intermarried couples the Pew report identifies as holding one of the keys to perpetuating American Jewish life? “Our sacred responsibility is to find broad places within our synagogues for these non-Jews to feel welcome and nurtured,” Gerald Zelizer, a Conservative rabbi of Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, New Jersey, wrote in The Jewish Week. These specific “broad places,” according to Zelizer, include: “[Synagogue] membership, which should be defined by family units, and not individuals, so as to incorporate both partners to the marriage. . . . At a baby naming, as the Jewish partner recites the brachah [blessing] at the Torah, the non-Jew may hold the baby at the Torah as the child is named; at the bar/bat mitzvah of the child, the non-Jew can read psalms in English. . . . [At] Religious schools and youth groups: Children of patrilineal Jewish marriages, or unconverted adopted children, should be encouraged to enroll in our religious schools with the understanding that prior to bar/bat mitzvah they will be required to convert. . . . Burial: A non-Jew may be interred next to his/her Jewish partner in a plot demarcated with special shrubbery so as to, in effect, designate the plot as non-sectarian but adjoining.”5

By stressing acceptance of non-Jews as active participants in the Jewish lifecycle—from the cradle to the grave—Zelizer concluded: “We . . . must do all we can to welcome their blessing, and in return bless them.” Yet Zelizer’s point of view on these lifecycle issues, it should be noted, has yet to be embraced by a majority of Conservative Jewish leaders.

A third red flag of warning the Pew report identified is a widening gap among Jews in their support for the State of Israel. The organized Jewish community, exemplified by Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) in Boston, directs considerable financial resources in support of Israel. “In our mission to create strong connections with Israel, we’re educating others about the close economic, cultural and strategic ties we share; establishing aid and relief programs in struggling communities; responding to crises; and empowering people to advocate for Israel,” a CJP statement reads.6 Indeed, frequent “crisis” fundraising calls, administered by CJP and organizations of the same ilk, have long been part of their strategic mission. Other efforts include costly junkets for state and nationally elected politicians to travel, all expenses paid, to the Holy Land on “missions,” as well as educational outreach for young people under the Passport to Israel program.

But Pew’s findings reveal support for Israel may be waning in the generations to come. In the sixty-five and older age group, Pew reported that support remains constant: 53 percent of those respondents said caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish. But among Jews younger than thirty, only 32 percent said they felt this way. There was also a reported gap on the topic of Israel between those Jews who identify as being Jewish by religion and those who define their Jewish connection through culture or heritage. About half of religious Jews responded to the Pew survey by stating that caring about Israel is essential, while only 23 percent of nonreligious Jews agreed.

Beth S. Wenger, Professor of American Jewish History and history department chair at the University of Pennsylvania, said that this growing rift may be attributed, in part, to the debate raging in Israel today regarding its treatment of Palestinians.

“Between the entrenched opinions on the far-right and far-left, there is a discernible center [in the U.S.] that supports Israel and wants it to be secure, but is increasingly uncomfortable about a Jewish state that allows Palestinians to live without rights,” Wenger noted. “It is interesting that the Israeli elections did not result in the sharp right-wing shift that many had predicted, but revealed that Israelis are divided and that perhaps there is an emerging (if still only nascent) center.”7

The struggle among Palestinians to achieve full citizenship within Israel is a subject eschewed by the organized Jewish community. Maintaining an apolitical position of “Israel right or wrong” in the twenty-first century—especially among Jews who champion human rights in the Middle East—may prove to be unpopular among future supporters and contribute to further erosion of support.

Taken as a whole, the Pew study reveals a changing yet tenuous future for American Jews. Of course, it may be argued that Jewish life has endured for centuries in the face of these and other graver challenges. Jews will no doubt always be a strand woven into the multicultural fabric of life in the United States, even with diminished numbers. As Simon Schama, a history professor at Columbia University, points out in his recently published popular history book (and BBC/PBS television series) The Story of the Jews, this can be attributed to Jews’ being highly literate. “From the beginning of the culture’s own self-consciousness, to be Jewish was to be Bookish,” Schama writes.8 Indeed, when the enemies of the Jews burned the Torah, Schama notes, Jews had already memorized it.

Jews derive strength and wisdom from their “Bookish” origins. Yet the community cannot rest on its laurels. The Pew study is a clarion call for Jews to evolve, to broaden their time-honored traditions, and to become more inclusive. Spokoiny points out in his JTA piece: “As the Talmud says, the Torah is a heart with many rooms. In a context of extreme uncertainty, we can’t foresee which ones will be successful in offering a good avenue for engagement.” Spokoiny’s statement challenges organized Jewish groups to appropriate funds for programs they may have historically neglected.

The Pew Research Center’s findings are like blasts from the shofar—the ram’s horn that awakens Jews from their summer reveries and summons them to assemble in prayer and atonement during early autumn’s High Holy Days. The red flags of warning this report raises act as an admonishment of sorts to those firmly entrenched at the core to find new ways to invite Jews who live on the periphery to join them, if they expect American Jewish life to flourish.



  1. Pew Research Center, A Portrait of Jewish Americans: Findings from a Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews (Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, October 2013), The Pew Research Center is a Washington, DC–based “fact tank” that “seeks to promote a deeper understanding of issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs.”
  2. Laurie Goodstein, “Poll Shows Major Shift in Identity of U.S. Jews,” The New York Times, October 1, 2013, A11.
  3. Andrés Spokoiny, “Pew Points the Way toward More Avenues to Jewish Life,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, October 8, 2013,
  4. See
  5. Gerald L. Zelizer, “Making a Place for Non-Jews in Our Synagogues,” The Jewish Week, January 30, 2014,
  6. Combined Jewish Philanthropies mission statement in support of Israel:
  7. Telephone interview with Beth S. Wenger, October 2013.
  8. Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000 BC–1492 AD (Harper Collins, 2014), 41.

Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer and editor whose most recent piece for the Bulletin was a profile on playwright/priest Bill Cain. He can be reached at

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Religious Law and the Visual Secular

Moments of conscience may also be gestures of transcendence.

Suzanne Smith

Moses, Church of San Pietro in Vincoli


Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564), Moses, Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, marble (circa 1513–1515).


The history of Western art does not lack for images of the giving of the law at Sinai. Throughout early modernity, representations of religious law, in this context, commonly amounted to representations of the Mosaic law described in the book of Exodus. A good number of the images of Moses holding the tablets of the law and breaking them assign a prominent role to the actual tablets themselves, which are variously shown with letters engraved in Hebrew, in Latin, in vernacular languages, and, occasionally, with no lettering at all. Yet perhaps the best-known work of Western art associated with the Mosaic law—Michelangelo’s Moses (1515), which figures prominently on the wall tomb of Pope Julius II in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli—shows us next to nothing of the actual tablets and nothing whatsoever of the words engraved on them. They are tucked rather inconspicuously to the side of the lawgiver.

Given the tablets’ peripheral status, it is not entirely surprising that modern viewers of this sculpture have tended to focus on the lawgiver rather than on the tablets of the law and the status the words engraved upon them hold for Judaism and Christianity.1 This is especially true for those viewers who have read Freud’s 1914 essay, “The Moses of Michelangelo.” In looking at the statue, what compels our immediate attention is the supposed inward crisis that has arisen for Moses in the course of dealing with those to whom the law was given. The law itself figures as accessory, background, or prelude to that dilemma.

Moses’s crisis, in Freud’s account, does not involve an attempt to invoke the party who was ostensibly responsible for getting him into his vexing predicament in the first place (namely, God) or, indeed, any recognizably “religious” issues of which we might speak. Yet Michelangelo’s Moses, for Freud, is “more than human.” He is, however, explicitly not the Moses of sacred texts and religious traditions:

Michelangelo has placed a different Moses on the tomb of the Pope, one superior to the historical or traditional Moses. He has modified the theme of the broken Tablets; he does not let Moses break them in his wrath, but makes him be influenced by the danger that they will be broken and makes him calm that wrath, or at any rate prevent it from becoming an act. In this way he has added something new and more than human to the figure of Moses; so that the giant frame with its tremendous physical power becomes only a concrete expression of the highest mental achievement that is possible in a man, that of struggling successfully against an inward passion for the sake of a cause to which he has devoted himself.2

The praise of self-mastery achieved under pressure, of course, is scarcely limited to sacred texts associated with particular religious traditions, or with religion more generally. Nietzsche’s supermen, for example, are found precisely “where the highest resistance is constantly overcome”: the Übermensch is notable for his capacity to “organiz[e] the chaos of his passions, sublimat[e] his impulses, and giv[e] style to his character.”3 According to Freud, the self-mastery shown by the sculpted Moses reflected Michelangelo’s comparable achievement with respect to his own passions. The artist, he suggests, was a person of vigorous passions who “carved his Moses on the Pope’s tomb . . . as a warning to himself, thus, in self-criticism.”4

Of Freud’s Moses, we might be tempted to say that he is of “secular” as well as “religious” significance. But how do we know that? When we encounter something that we take to be “secular” in the visual arts or, more broadly, in visual experience, on what basis do we assign secularity to the person, event, or phenomenon being represented? What do we look for when we look for the secular? I am specifically interested in these questions with reference to the representation of religious law in works of art.

In keeping with the oft-noted attempt to define the secular in terms of the absence of religion, one might be tempted to answer the question, “What does the secular look like with reference to the visual representation of religious law?” with the answer, “It looks like what is not religious.” For example, with reference to Michelangelo’s Moses, we might say that he is not represented in such a way as to localize the “meaning” of the sculpture within a given religious tradition or within “religion” more generally (whatever that means). For Freud, what one needs to read Moses correctly are Western ideas about the psychology of self-mastery. Although he does not note the origins of such ideas, they are both religious and secular.

Prior to late modernity, “religion” itself was almost always imagined in Western art as a female figure situated in relation to something that she was not. Take, for instance, Titian’s Religion Succored by Spain (ca. 1572–75). Titian presented this painting to King Philip II to commemorate the victory of Spain over the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. In preparing the painting for Philip, Titian drew from a composition featuring the goddesses Minerva and Venus, converting Minerva into Spain and Venus into “Religion.” The latter is shown all but naked (save for a blue cloth draped over her hips and one leg) and in a state of apparent distress; she is holding her hand to her breast while sitting on a rock, with her gaze cast downward. Who is “Religion” here? Our most immediate impression is that Religion is defined by her need to be rescued by Spain. When Religion is not represented in explicit relation to specific others from whom she requires assistance, whether political or mythological, she is sometimes represented in relation to those she is overthrowing or rebuking.

In more contemporary art, however, one finds almost no representations of religion in relation to a specific other.5 More frequently, one finds “religion” and “religious experience” invoked in such a way that they cannot be represented through figuration or seen in relation to anything else, unless absence or negation may be said themselves to constitute “anything else.” One thinks, for example, of a recent painting by Dutch artist Jes Fomsgaard, titled No Religion (2003). What do we see when we are implicitly told that religion is not present (or ought not to be) in what we are seeing? Here, we see something vaguely suggestive of a rendering of an ancient city as drawn from above. One might profitably compare the painting with a schematic plan of Pisidian Antioch, which was decimated in the eighth century CE. In that plan, we see two churches, one basilica, a nymphaeum, and a temple of Augustus, reflecting various layers of the city’s religious history. In Fomsgaard’s painting, there are seven temples or civic structures of some sort, but it is not clear which ones (if any) serve religious functions or what those functions might be. Of the various temple-like edifices, none is represented as being more prominent than another. We see here no single religion, but perhaps material evidence of the existence of several or, in fact, none. Where is “religion” in this? Has it been absorbed into what it is not?

No Religion


Jes Fomsgaard, No Religion, acrylic and chalk on wood (2003). Courtesy Jes Fomsgaard.


In the context of modern art, of course, one occasionally finds the suggestion that artistic experience is itself a mode of religious experience. For example, modern artist Mark Rothko once remarked: “I am interested in the basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom. . . . The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.”6 In this conception, “art” as such is that which is both conceived and received in terms of religious experience. Religious experience, in turn, is associated with “weeping” and other heightened states of emotion, as well as with an elusive sense of “higher meaning,” that is, “something of more than mundane significance”—something, in Freud’s terms, “more than human.”7 But, as Freud reminds us in his reading of Michelangelo’s Moses, this “something more” may connote secular self-overcoming from within, rather than a distinctively religious encounter with a source of transcendence external to the self, from “without,” as it were.

The reconceptualization of art as that which takes the place of religious experience runs flatly counter to conceptions of modern art as that which is more akin to philosophy, and especially to science, than to religion. The best-known formulation of this notion is found in art critic Clement Greenberg’s highly influential 1960 essay, “Modernist Painting.” According to Greenberg, the essence of modern art is its capacity for self-criticism. In this, he suggests, modern art is antithetical to religion. Modernism as such, in his account, has no place for the latter. One is alive; the other is dead:

Modernism includes more than art and literature. By now it covers almost the whole of what is truly alive in our culture. It happens, however, to be very much of a historical novelty. Western civilization is not the first civilization to turn around and question its own foundations, but it is the one that has gone furthest in doing so. I identify Modernism with the intensification . . . of this self-critical tendency that began with the philosopher Kant. . . .

The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.8

For Greenberg, modernist self-criticism derives and differs from the mode of self-criticism that he takes to be characteristic of eighteenth-century Enlightenment thought. At that time, he suggests, “a more rational justification had begun to be demanded of every formal social activity, and Kantian self-criticism, which had arisen in philosophy in answer to this demand in the first place, was called on eventually to meet and interpret it in areas that lay far from philosophy.”

Foremost among the areas that Greenberg sees as having been constitutionally deaf to the demand for rational justification and self-criticism is religion. “We know,” he confidently asserts, “what has happened to an activity like religion, which could not avail itself of Kantian, immanent, criticism in order to justify itself.” What we know, apparently, is that religion has been reduced to entertainment, and entertainment to therapy. In Greenberg’s account, this fate was warded off by the arts because, in answering the demand of modernity for critical distance from itself, the arts demonstrated “that the kind of experience they provided was valuable in its own right and not to be obtained from any other kind of activity.” The arts could still be, in Greenberg’s words, “pure,” with “pure” meaning, “unique,” and possessed of self-definition. To his mind, “Modernist art belongs to the same specific cultural tendency as modern science, and this is of the highest significance as a historical fact.”

A number of problems exist with Greenberg’s account of the emergence of an untainted modernism out of the muck of an impure therapeutic culture that I do not have the space to detail here.9 What is striking, for our purposes, in Greenberg’s account of Western culture is his suggestion of a movement that was not taken by religion within religion, which would have allowed it, after the fashion of modern art, to define and justify itself as religion. This movement allows a given entity “to turn around and question its own foundations,” to step back from itself within itself, as it were, and become a question to itself.

In that last sentence, I have deliberately used terms borrowed from the language of questioning oneself proper to Augustinian introspection, as well as a description of the crucial gesture entailed in gaining explicitly “theoretical” distance from experience or phenomena. What is entailed in the capacity to step back from a given state of mind or state of affairs and to gain the distance that is the condition of criticism of or mastery over that state? Under what conditions, if any, may such a movement take place collectively? What are its sources?

For Freud, the source of Moses’s successful act of self-criticism, as well as that of Michelangelo himself, is an assertion of will on behalf of a cause to which he has devoted himself. At issue is not the cause itself but passionate devotion to the cause, which entails commitment. But Freud’s own insight into the meaning of the putative accomplishment of Moses and Michelangelo alike is ostensibly born not of an assertion of will but of an interpretation guided by psychoanalytic theory. When at one point, in his account, Freud found himself overwhelmed by the statue of Moses, he was, with the aid of his theoretical equipment, ultimately able to gain enough distance from it to see it for what it was. That was quite a feat, Freud suggests, given the effect of this “inscrutable and wonderful” sculpture upon him:

How often have I mounted the steep steps from the unlovely Corso Cavour to the lonely piazza where the deserted church stands, and have essayed to support the angry scorn of the hero’s glance! Sometimes I have crept cautiously out of the half-gloom of the interior as though I myself belonged to the mob . . . which can hold fast to no conviction, which has neither faith nor patience, and which rejoices when it has regained its illusory idols.10

Freud mentally inserts himself into the “mob” of Golden Calf worshipers at Sinai and withdraws himself from them in one sentence. Having denounced them, he asks himself why it is that he still finds Michelangelo’s Moses to be so extraordinarily inscrutable, given that “there is,” he notes, “not the slightest doubt that it represents Moses, the Law-giver of the Jews.”11 It is not, however, the authority of the Jewish law against idolatry that informs Freud’s rejection of the mob, but rather, he suggests, his “rationalistic or perhaps analytic turn of mind” that led him to develop a theory of psychoanalysis. That theory, in turn, allows him to zero in on Moses as a heroic figure of self-mastery and to interpret that demonstration of self-mastery. The law as such is not much of an issue in his interpretation. But, through the act of interpreting, he secures his distance from the mob of rejoicing idolaters.

Thus far, we have taken note of three sorts of self-critical disengagement, each manifesting itself as a mode of mastery. The first is that detected by Freud in the sculpted figure of Moses; the second, that detected by Freud in Michelangelo; and the third, that of Freud himself. All three of these follow from Freud’s turn toward interpretation, as facilitated by this use of theory and prompted by his rationalistic turn of mind. That turn of mind is the impetus for his initial attempt to disengage from received ideas (whether those of idolaters or merely of scholars who did not go far enough in interpreting the sculpture). Theory is the means through which he maintains and expands his distance.

I wonder, however, if, in pointing toward this moment of self-critical disengagement, we have located what it is that we look for when we look for the secular, or if the understanding of theoretically informed criticism as that which promises privileged access to the extraordinary is itself suggestive of religion.12 Perhaps the “visual secular” is a stance that may be recognized in any historical context, whether we encounter it in a sixteenth-century Italian sculpture or a twentieth-century scholarly essay. In commenting on this moment’s origins, are we pointing toward the origins of the secular, at least in its capacity as a particular cast of mind?

In his last book, the late sociologist of religion Robert Bellah links the capacity for stepping back from experience to the attainment of a specifically theoretical distance. In his account, the capacity to theorize arose during the first millennium bce. During that time, Bellah observes, “theoretic culture emerges in several places in the old world, questioning the old narratives as it reorganizes them and their mimetic bases, rejecting ritual and myth as it creates new rituals and myths, and calling all the old hierarchies into question in the name of ethical and spiritual universalism.”13 The dawn of theory, in his account, marks an “axial shift” in human evolution. In a well-known essay from 1975, Benjamin Schwartz described the characteristic gesture of this period as entailing “a kind of standing back and looking beyond—a kind of critical, reflective questioning of the actual and a new vision of what lies beyond.” The movements which entail this gesture, in Schwartz’s account, include “Abraham’s departure from Ur and all it represents, by the Buddha’s more radical renunciation, by Confucius’s search for the source of jen within, by the Lao Tse book’s strain toward the nameless Tao, and by the Greek strain toward an order beyond the Homeric gods, by the Socratic search within as well as by Orphic mysteries.”14

Schwartz suggests that what is common to all of these is a “strain toward transcendence.” This transcendence may be either secular or religious, but it is definitively neither. What is at stake in the act of transcending is the capacity of a given figure or tradition to stand back from and see beyond its current state by practicing or enacting critical questioning with respect to it. Transcendence does for Schwartz what theory does for Bellah. Bellah treats the rise of Mosaic and Deuteronomic law in ancient Israel as a phenomenon that fits within the shift toward theoretic culture, although he does not spell out their relationship at any length.15 Like theory, law entails a formal attempt to articulate (often through procedural means) some distance from a given phenomenon in order to judge it. Broadly speaking, both theory and law pertain to the articulation and maintenance of space within which judgment of different sorts, whether critical or legal, may occur. But legal judgment may, in certain contexts, depend upon or reinforce received opinions, customs, normative principles, and traditions (both secular and religious), rather than departing from them. Precedent, principle (including that ostensibly derived from a “higher law”), or tradition may be part of the legal grounds upon which a given critique is corrected or rejected altogether. And those principles (one thinks, for instance, of the principle of human dignity as it has been invoked in recent legal contexts) may be of ambiguous religious and secular parentage.

Generally speaking, law—unlike theory—tends to be attached to sanctions, commands, and a set of means (sometimes violent) by which those sanctions are to be implemented. For the person who obeys the law, it may also entail reverence or love, both of which connote a felt sense of obligation or duty. It is certainly the case in terms of ordinary experience that “laws . . . are more like maxims or imperatives than arguments.”16 Traffic or tax laws, for example, are not presented to us in the course of ordinary experience as invitations to practice critical thinking and ask probing questions. The imperative “do this or negative consequences will ensue” is one moment in the life of the law; the carrying out of those consequences is another. But there is also a moment of inward “stepping back” with respect to what to do about the giving or the living of law; this is the moment of conscience, in both its secular and religious formulations.17 It is also the moment in which the supposed tension between the “letter” and the “spirit” of the law has been thought to surface, and in which the former may be rewritten in favor of the latter (as we see, for example, in the ca. 1650 painting Moses with the Tablets of the Law, by Claude Vignon) or exposed as something other than “law” altogether.

Moses and the Tablets of the Law


Claude Vignon (1593–1670), Moses and the Tablets of the Law, oil on canvas (circa 1650). Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen, France / Bridgeman Images.


It is worth noting that, upon reflection (and after some consideration of Bellah and Schwartz), we seem to have encountered a problem, in that the moment of critical distance that we singled out as a potential marker of the visual secular turns out to be possibly, though not necessarily, consistent with “religious” modes of transcendence. What are we to make of this, if critical self-questioning and criticism are supposed to be the special province of modern secularism? It is not an accident that the act of critical self-questioning bears a family resemblance to what has been seen as the characteristic gesture of the secular cast of mind. The resemblance between the secular and the rational “step back,” as Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and Saba Mahmood have noted, follows from the increasingly contested “presumption that . . . secularism is by definition the condition of critique and self-criticism, distinguished from religious orthodoxy, which is regularly considered to be dogmatic.” They continue: “The assumption that critique is secular implies that secularism enables an active critique of an object or way of thinking as well as creating the very atmosphere in which intellectual positions are opened to criticism.”18

It is not only modern criticism that may speak of and account for the putative moment in which one steps back or walks away from a given position; this moment has also been canvassed in works of art (albeit in different terms). We have already mentioned Freud’s attempt to read Michelangelo’s Moses in this light. But the figure of Moses is seated. Given that we are talking about the representation of a mental moment sometimes envisioned in terms of the physical motion of stepping back, it may be helpful to consult a medium of figurative art other than that of sculpture, namely, that of painting.

I have noted that the history of Western art does not lack for images of the giving of the written law at Sinai. But, of the experience of living with the other law that, according to rabbinic tradition and legend, was also given at Sinai—the Oral Torah—we find few representations. This is not especially surprising; apart from Rembrandt, few major European painters were interested in representing Jewish tradition.19 For an exception to this rule, we have to look slightly outside of the European tradition to a Russian painter who was deeply immersed in several strains of that tradition. To bring up Marc Chagall is to prompt the question of whether he may be considered a major artist. To Greenberg, Chagall was, apart from his “first-rank” work in etching and lithography, notable in “the history of art as a painter of at least the second rank.”20

For Greenberg, after an early period of promise, Chagall’s “work [was] softened and sweetened by the practice of that cuisine of viscous oil which seems to incorporate for him the essence of French tradition—a tradition he adores as only one originally an outsider could.”21 In referring to him as an “outsider,” Greenberg is thinking of Chagall’s origin in a Hasidic shtetl in Vitebsk, Russia. In comparing Chagall’s work to that of his near contemporary and fellow subject of the Russian Empire, Chaim Soutine, Greenberg writes:

Far away from [Soutine] is that cloying, folkish cuteness which [Chagall] cultivates in his role of lovable, fantastical Jewish genius from Vitebsk. Soutine had no truck with such self-indulgent exhibitionism. He was, if I may put it that way, too Jewish—or at least too much a Litvak—to put his East European Jewishness on show as something exotic and picturesque. Yet, if such a thing as Jewishness can be made palpable in art, I find more of it in Soutine’s than in Chagall’s. Soutine is more naive and direct and absorbed, less self-conscious and more involved with his feelings than with the effect in view. He looked away from himself, and the trees, fields, flowers, animals, houses, and people he painted from are not a set of iconographic themes on which to ring variations, as his subjects are for Chagall, but so much existence to be grasped through paint.22

Here, Jewishness in art is apparently revealed through artless absorption in the things of existence and one’s own feelings about them. If we recall that, for Greenberg, what is modern in modernist art is what is self-consciously self-critical, it would seem that one cannot be a Jewish and a modernist painter at the same time.

In any event, it is Chagall, not Soutine, who takes up the task of thinking about Jewish law in terms suggestive of what I have been calling the “visual secular,” which I have defined with reference to the articulation of distance from a given experience or set of norms that does not necessarily entail a clean departure from them. In one of Chagall’s paintings depicting the observance of religious law, the moment of articulating critical distance shows up as an imagined movement of the mind and body that does not connote the definitive rejection of religious law that he experienced in his own life.

Chagall grew up as the oldest son in a Hasidic family of nine children. Although he attended a traditional Jewish school, and acquired some knowledge of Hebrew, he stopped being an observant Jew long before adulthood. In his autobiography, he portrays himself as a thirteen-year-old boy caught between two extreme positions with regard to religious observance: “What should I do? . . . Pray morning and evening and everywhere I go, whatever I put in my mouth and whatever I hear, immediately say a prayer? Or flee from the synagogue and, throwing away the books, the holy vestments, roam the streets towards the river?”23 Chagall represents his rejection of Jewish practice as a series of dramatic gestures: it was not enough to figuratively walk out of the synagogue, never to return; rather, he had to “flee” from it. Putting the books down never to pick them up again does not suffice by way of signaling the force of his rejection; the books must be thrown away, along with the holy vestments. Finally, his flight from religion does not lead in a direct line toward art (and ultimately, Paris), but out into the street and then toward the river.

In his paintings, Chagall returns over and over to a figure I shall call “the man on his way out.” He shows up in quite a few paintings, often near one of the edges of the painting, but sometimes in the center, with his feet frequently directed out of the space of the painting. He never quite leaves, however. In one early painting (The Dead Man, 1911), the man on his way out shows up simply as a pair of legs fleeing a disturbing scene on a street. He represents the choice or the need to depart from a given context. His existence is especially notable in Chagall’s paintings with explicitly Jewish themes. In another painting, The Walking Village (1921), a cluster of huts has been loosely joined into a body that is in the process of leaving the painting. Yiddish words reading “What do I need it, the transparent lucidity”24 overlap with one of the houses. To cite only a few examples of many: in Remembrance (1915), Over Vitebsk (1915–20), and White Crucifixion (1938), we see the man on the way out in the form of “the wandering Jew” with his sack on his back, leaving the world of the painting, not because he chooses to go elsewhere, but because his existence will no longer be tolerated in the space that he occupies. In White Crucifixion, several Jews are seen on their “way out” in the wake of a pogrom. A man on his way out shows up as well in a painting called The Feast of the Tabernacles (1916).

For my purposes, the figure of “the man on his way out” takes on an added level of meaning in Chagall’s Feast Day (Rabbi with Citron).25 This painting represents a rabbi on the autumnal feast day of Sukkot, or Tabernacles. The rabbi depicted in the painting is carrying a yellow citron (etrog) and a date palm frond (lulav), in deference to Jewish law. Standing on top of his head, another rabbi, also draped in a prayer shawl, plays the role of the man on his way out in miniature. In thinking of Chagall’s early depiction of the stark choice with which he was faced at religious maturity, one is struck by the more complex image that we see here of the movement of mind and will as it figures with respect to Jewish law. The miniature rabbi in this picture is not carrying the ceremonial fruit and branches of his larger counterpart. Yet he still wears the prayer shawl. He is stepping away from that which his larger, law-obeying counterpart is moving toward. The miniature rabbi, as a figure of thought or will, has no ground to walk on other than that of the large rabbi’s head, and hence no source of resistance should he wish to drag his heels. He has no option but to be drawn into the edifice before which the larger rabbi stands, should the latter enter into it. That rabbi, however, is simply standing there. (Perhaps he is stuck?) He is not leaving, but some part of him is turning from the experience at hand.

Feast Day (Rabbi and a Lemon)


Marc Chagall (1887–1985), Feast Day (Rabbi and a Lemon), oil on cardboard (circa 1924). Private collection / photo: Christie’s Images / Bridgeman Images. 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Adagp, Paris. Reproduction, including downloading of ARS member works is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


Earlier, I mentioned the imperative moment in the life of the law and suggested that there is a moment, as well, of an inward “stepping back” with respect to what to do about the giving and living of the law. Freud’s interest in this moment as it figures in the life of Moses as lawgiver, however, all but writes the law out of the conflict altogether in favor of a drama of wayward passions and the successful rebuke of them by a superhuman will. The tablets of the law remain intact in Freud’s rewriting of the biblical narrative at the cost of becoming peripheral to the scene.

For Chagall, painting his Feast Day in 1914, the same year that Freud published his essay on Moses, the visual secular is not a moment of more than human triumph. If the miniature rabbi suggests to us a moment of the visual secular, it may be nothing more or less than a (fragile, contingent, or fugitive) moment. It may suggest an alternative reservoir of “meaning” within the painting, or perhaps even a decided turn of mind tethered to a practice of reflection. It would require some imagination, however, to understand that turn of mind apart from the larger figure on which it rests. The external apparatus of observation (in terms of the prayer shawl and the ceremonial accoutrements) remains intact. Here, the man on his way out seems to be stepping away from observance from within observance. Relative to the larger rabbi, we might be tempted to view the miniature one as the more secular figure. But if the figures were not juxtaposed as they are, how could we tell?



  1. On the varying status and sequence of the Aseret HaDibrot, or Ten Commandments, in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, as well as in classical Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity more generally, see the essays collected in The Decalogue in Jewish and Christian Tradition, ed. Henning Graf Reventlow and Yair Hoffman (T & T Clark International, 2011); and see the following three essays in The Decalogue through the Centuries: From the Hebrew Scriptures to Benedict XVI, ed. Jeffrey P. Greenman and Timothy Larsen (Westminster John Knox Press, 2012): Daniel I. Block, “The Decalogue in the Hebrew Scriptures,” 1–28; Craig A. Evans, “The Decalogue in the New Testament,” 29–46; and David Novak, “Moses Maimonides,” 81–96.
  2. Sigmund Freud, “The Moses of Michelangelo,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 13, Totem and Taboo and Other Works, trans. James Strachey (The Hogarth Press, 1955), 233.
  3. Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (Princeton University Press, 1974), 316.
  4. Freud, “The Moses of Michelangelo,” 234.
  5. The same may be said with respect to graphic design. For an exception, see the Russian poster that asserts that “By Building Socialism We Shall Give the Decisive Blow to Religion” (1931); Museum of Modern Art, New York.
  6. Mark Rothko, as quoted in Jacob Baal-Teshuva, Mark Rothko: 1903–1970. Pictures as Drama (Taschen, 2003), 57.
  7. Dominique de Menil, who commissioned the Rothko Chapel in Houston and the paintings it contains, remarked at the chapel’s dedication in 1971 that Rothko’s paintings evoke “the mystery of the cosmos, the tragic mystery of our perishable condition, [and] . . . the unbearable silence of God”; see Pamela G. Smart, Sacred Modern: Faith, Activism, and Aesthetics in the Menil Collection (University of Texas Press, 2010), 45.
  8. Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” in Forum Lectures (Voice of America, 1960).
  9. Something akin to a “self” is required if modernist “self-criticism” is to proceed. Greenberg never clarifies what that self is, why or whether we are to accept its existence as a fictive (and collective?) subject, or how it is constructed. Beyond that, he claims that the “scientific method” (the origins of which predate the Enlightenment) is in fact the fulfillment of Kantian self-criticism. Finally, he seems unaware of the long history of attempts to provide rational justifications for religion from within a religious tradition, including that of medieval Jewish thinker Saadia Gaon and that of Aquinas in Roman Catholicism. It is not clear why we should think that the relationship between rationality and religion may be adequately defined exclusively with reference to Kantian notions of rationality.
  10. Freud, “The Moses of Michelangelo,” 213.
  11. Ibid.
  12. On religion, postmetaphysical philosophy, and “contact with the extraordinary,” see Jürgen Habermas, Postmetaphysical Thinking: Philosophical Essays (MIT Press, 1992), 51.
  13. Robert N. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Harvard University Press, 2011), xix.
  14. Benjamin J. Schwartz, “The Age of Transcendence,” Daedalus 104 (Spring 1975): 3.
  15. Suzanne Smith, “Religion in the Age of Kant and Bacteria,” Harvard Divinity Bulletin 42 (Winter/Spring 2014): 71.
  16. Frederick M. Dolan, “Nietzsche’s Gnosis of Law,” Cardozo Law Review 24 (2003): 757. Yet, like arguments, laws are inextricably tethered to narratives. As Robert Cover puts it: “No set of legal institutions or prescriptions exists apart from the narratives that locate it and give it meaning. For every constitution there is an epic, for each decalogue a scripture. Once understood in the context of the narratives that give it meaning, law becomes not merely a system of rules to be observed, but a world in which we live”; “The Supreme Court, 1982 Term—Foreword: Nomos and Narrative,” Harvard Law Review 97, no. 4 (1983): 4–5.
  17. See Henry David Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government,” in Thoreau: Political Writings, ed. Nancy L. Rosenblum (Cambridge University Press, 1996): “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice” (2–3).
  18. Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and Saba Mahmood, “Preface, 2013,” in Talal Asad et al., Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech (Fordham University Press, 2013), ii.
  19. On Rembrandt and Judaism, see Steven Nadler, Rembrandt’s Jews (University of Chicago Press, 2003).
  20. Clement Greenberg, “Two of the Moderns,” Commentary, October 1, 1953, 386.
  21. Ibid., 387.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Marc Chagall, My Life, trans. Elizabeth Abbott (Da Capo Press, 1994), 46. On Chagall’s Judaism, see especially Benjamin Harshav, Marc Chagall and the Lost Jewish World: The Nature of Chagall’s Art and Iconography (Rizzoli, 2006).
  24. I borrow this translation from Harshav, Marc Chagall and the Lost Jewish World, 122.
  25. Chagall painted Feast Day (Rabbi with Citron) in 1914. The faded original may be found in the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf. The version of the painting that is available for reproduction is a copy made by Chagall in 1924.

Suzanne Smith is a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard University. This is adapted from a talk delivered as part of the Center for the Study of World Religions spring conference, “Studying Religion across the Disciplines,” held March 27–29, 2014.

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See also: Arts and Music

Ronald Dworkin’s Onto-Theology

Ronald E. Osborn

In Review | Books Religion without God, by Ronald Dworkin. Harvard University Press, 192 pages, $17.95.

In his final book, Religion Without God, based on his 2011 Einstein Lectures at the University of Bern, distinguished legal scholar Ronald Dworkin offers a provocative challenge to philosophical naturalism and a defense of objective values, including belief in “life’s intrinsic meaning and nature’s intrinsic beauty.”1 Such convictions are not matters of empirical proof or disproof based upon some set of data lying outside of the realm of values itself, Dworkin asserts. They cannot be grasped reductively using the vocabulary of neuropsychology or other natural sciences. Rather, they must be understood and embraced for what they are: a profoundly religious outlook on the universe and life that can only be accepted or rejected as a matter of faith. Drawing inspiration from Einstein, Dworkin argues for the necessity of belief in “something beyond nature”:

The beauty and sublimity [Einstein] said we could reach only as a feeble reflection are not part of nature; they are something beyond nature that cannot be grasped even by finally understanding the most fundamental of physical laws. It was Einstein’s faith that some transcendental and objective value permeates the universe, value that is neither a natural phenomenon nor a subjective reaction to natural phenomena. That is what led him to insist on his own religiosity. No other description, he thought, could better capture the character of his faith. (6)

At the “metaphysical core” of all religions, Dworkin argues, are two basic convictions. First, “The religious attitude accepts the full, independent reality of value” and “holds that human life has objective meaning or importance.” Second, to be religious is to accept “that what we call ‘nature’—the universe as a whole and in all its parts—is not just a matter of fact but is itself sublime: something of intrinsic value and wonder” (10).

Yet even as Dworkin embraces “the religious attitude” in opposition to philosophical naturalists and materialists, he rejects any linking of faith in objective values with the grammars of theism or belief in a personal God. “I do not argue that there is no personal god who made the heavens and loves its creatures,” he writes,

I claim only that such a god’s existence cannot in itself make a difference to the truth of any religious values. If a god exists, perhaps he can send people to heaven or hell. But he cannot of his own will create right answers to moral questions or instill the universe with a glory it would not otherwise have. A god’s existence or character can figure in the defense of such values only as a fact that makes some different, independent background value judgment pertinent; it can figure only, that is, as a minor premise. (25–26)

According to Dworkin, the “status of value” must not be held “hostage to biology or metaphysics” (15–16). We should instead embrace an “ungrounded realism” that admits no appeal to anything other than values to certify the goodness of goodness, just as the only way to demonstrate the truthfulness of a mathematical postulate is from within the logic of mathematics itself. Dworkin acknowledges that, unlike in mathematics, “there are no agreed standards for moral or other forms of reasoning about value” (17). Yet he remains optimistic that this poses no real threat to the “felt, inescapable conviction” that “cruelty is really wrong” or that life has “intrinsic meaning” since we “have no reason at all, short of further evidence or argument, to doubt their truth” (11, 20–21). Dworkin thus offers no reply to Nietzsche and his postmodern heirs who have arrived at the felt, inescapable conviction that “without cruelty there is no festival.”2 Nietzsche’s name is nowhere mentioned in this book. Instead, Dworkin simply shifts the burden of proof back onto moral skeptics and antirealists. “I will not have convinced some of you,” he writes. “You just do not have the religious point of view” (11).

At some level, Dworkin must have known that this was a deeply unsatisfactory answer to the very real challenge of constructing a coherent and compelling metaethics after the “death of God” (or versions of transcendence that in different times and places have gone by other names). Although he declares that his account of objective values is based upon an “ungrounded realism,” it is striking that he nevertheless continues to trade on a vocabulary of pure metaphysics. He asserts that what the theologian Rudolph Otto “called the experience ‘numinous’ ”3 closely matches the “emotional reaction” of many scientists confronted by the vastness and complexity of the universe. These nontheists, Dworkin writes, even use “the very term ‘numinous’ to describe what they feel” (10). There is slippage in Dworkin’s reference to Otto, however, for Otto did not think that we have “experiences numinous,” but rather that we have experiences of the numinous.4 Is the “numinous” an adjective or a noun? Is Dworkin only concerned with numinous feelings, or, like Otto, with a reality that both transcends and encompasses all empirically observable phenomenon and is itself “numinous” or “sacred,” demanding a certain kind of feeling and response from us (whether or not we are willing or able to make it)?

Despite such ambiguities in Dworkin’s language (and it remains unclear whether he subscribes to the idea of the numinous or simply thinks it is one alternative to the idea of a personal God), he is opposed to any reduction of values to subjective feelings, whether individual or collective. He quotes approvingly from Paul Tillich’s famous statement that “God” is the “ground and abyss of being and meaning” and is manifest in “the experience of the numinous” (37). Highlighting similarities among Tillich, Einstein, Spinoza, and Carl Sagan, Dworkin suggests that all four thinkers point us toward the same reality: a universe saturated with objective beauty and value. However, it would be “much clearer and more accurate” to refer to pantheists and other believers in “non-personal” versions of the numinous as “religious atheists” rather than as believers in a “non-personal god” (42–43). The differences among them, Dworkin maintains, are less interesting and less important than their shared faith in the objective reality of value itself.

Is it really the case, however, that God can only figure as a “minor premise” in conversations about the good? And is faith in a strictly impersonal “ground of being” (let alone “ungrounded realism”) really sufficient to disclose, enrich, and sustain many of the values Dworkin held dear? What if it is the value of the personal that is precisely at stake? How, without falling into pure subjectivism or relativism, can we affirm the independent or real value of compassion for the weak and the marginalized, or of self-giving love for the Other, if the Ultimate Reality of the universe that somehow gave rise to humanity and toward which our lives can either bend or not bend is bereft of anything like personality, and so utterly devoid of compassion, joy, wisdom, and love?

Accepting Dworkin’s intuition that all of life contains intrinsic value and meaning, the question that Nietzsche forces us to face is whether we will continue to find the same things beautiful, valuable, and meaningful in the absence of belief in God; for religion without God also means religion without the imago Dei. Will we grow more attuned to the suffering of others and to the needs of our neighbors if we come to believe there is no God who hears our cries or who stands in radical solidarity with the weak and the lowly—that there is only a coldly sublime universe and the strength of our “felt convictions,” whatever these might be? The question, Nietzsche insisted, must be posed not only at the level of individuals or of personal psychology, but also generationally, so that we might know what the death of God would finally come to mean for an entire culture.

Whether or not Dworkin’s religion of objective values can logically sustain liberal conceptions of inviolable individual human dignity and equality, we must also ask whether faith in objective values alone can practically move us toward ethical action in the same ways the grammars of theistic anthropology can. As Jürgen Habermas has confessed, “enlightened reason unavoidably loses its grip on the images, preserved by religion, of the moral whole—of the Kingdom of God on earth—as collectively binding ideals.” It “fails to fulfill its own vocation…to awaken, and to keep awake, in the minds of secular subjects, an awareness of the violations of solidarity throughout the world, an awareness of what is missing, of what cries out to heaven.”5

A further problem arises from Dworkin’s religious reflections. His faith in objective values is, on closer examination, a form of that sickness unto death that Heidegger referred to as onto-theology. Dworkin’s claim that the personhood of God can add nothing of moral significance to the impersonal “ground of being” of Spinoza, Einstein, and Sagan conflates and confuses the God of classical theism with the God of the philosophers. But the “God” who Dworkin dismisses is also rejected by every serious theist on the orthodox conviction that we can enter into relationship with God insofar as God is personal, yet never turn God into a safe or convenient prop for our own moral or intellectual ends. Further, Dworkin’s religion is—from the perspective of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thought—a deeply onto-theological project; for onto-theology arises precisely out of the attempt to construct a religion without God when what we most urgently need is God without religion.6

The word “onto-theology,” Merold Westphal writes, has become “the abracadabra by which a triumphalist secularism makes the world immune to any God who resembles the personal Creator, Lawgiver, and Merciful Savior of Jewish, or Christian, or Muslim monotheism.”7 But Heidegger’s original critique of onto-theology was “not directed toward the God of the Bible or the Koran, before whom people do fall on their knees in awe, pray, sacrifice, sing, and dance,” but at “those that have sold their soul to philosophy’s project of rendering the whole of reality intelligible to human understanding.”8 The title essay of Westphal’s book is therefore addressed primarily not to religious believers, but to atheists who have misappropriated Heidegger in their critiques of orthodox faith and who have failed to realize that they might be engaging in onto-theology.9

There is a world of difference between believing—as in the traditions of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Pascal, Kierkegaard, or Barth—that a divine perspective exists, and thinking that we can fully capture or control it.10 Westphal argues that none of these thinkers, properly understood, were in fact onto-theologians in Heidegger’s sense, since all were acutely aware of the limits of human knowledge—limits that were central to their understanding of belief in God. “They are trying to make the best sense they can of their faith, but they have not bought into the project of making the whole of reality intelligible to human understanding with help from the Highest Being,” Westphal writes. “They agree with the twentieth-century psalmist who sings, ‘I cannot worship what I comprehend.’ ”11

By contrast, we can detect the onto-theological drive even in forms of atheism, “for the project survives the death of God.”12 Westphal suggests that onto-theology occurs: 1) Whenever the personal God of revelation and doxology is replaced by systems of conceptual mastery that strive to be completely self-grounding; 2) When mathematical physics finally replaces theology as our highest science, leaving us with a purely instrumentalist, depersonalized, and human-controlled form of “religion”; and, above all, 3) When we cut ourselves off from the relationships and the practices of worshiping communities—praying, singing, and dancing before the divine—that constitute the heart of any living faith.13 Onto-theology arises not only in fundamentalist or scholastic systems that have forgotten how and when to be silent and how and when to sing, but also in certain forms of “negative theology”; for “silencing God is one way of having God at our disposal and protecting ourselves against being seized by what we do not see. The act of protesting against onto-theology can become an onto-theological gesture.”14

In his opening chapter, Dworkin offers Spinoza as an exemplary model of “religion without God,” but who Heidegger pointed to as a paradigmatic onto-theologian. “Spinoza’s God is not an intelligence who stands outside everything and who, through the force of his will, has created the universe and the physical laws that govern it,” Dworkin writes. “His God just is the complete set of physical laws considered under a different aspect.” He continues, “Couldn’t that god be eliminated as only window dressing? If Nature, in the form of determining physical law, is and accounts for everything, and does this without any ambition or plan or purpose, why bring god into the story at all?” (38–39). For Dworkin, once we have clarified what Spinoza actually meant when he used the word “God,” we can fully embrace his metaphysics—just as Einstein cited Spinoza as a vital inspiration and as his religious predecessor (40).

The onto-theological drive in Dworkin’s religious atheism comes into still sharper focus in his second chapter, “The Universe.” Dworkin marvels at the ways in which “secular science” has become “amazingly like the science of theology” (93). He expresses hope that theoretical physicists will one day find “a final theory of everything,” embracing the dream of modern science that “there is, waiting to be discovered, a comprehensive, simple, and unified explanation of how the universe was born and how it works” (61). Such a total theory would “radiate that transcendent beauty” of the universe that, at present, can only be taken on faith (62). According to Dworkin, the elusive theory of everything that science is striving toward, if attained, will be a theory displaying “shielded strong integrity”—it will provide not only a logically complete explanation of all of reality, it will also reveal from within itself that no other explanation can ever possibly arise (87). If some find this idea profoundly disturbing, Dworkin does not. He concludes, “the scientific presumption that the universe is finally fully comprehensible is also the religious conviction that it shines with real beauty” (104).

Dworkin’s faith in objective values is therefore best seen as a religion of logical necessity that—despite his disavowal of metaphysical systems as well as any personal God—stands in the onto-theological traditions of Aristotle, Spinoza, and Hegel. His critique of the intellectual poverty and moral nihilism of any fully consistent philosophical naturalism or materialism provides a welcome opening that might indeed lead to “improved communication” between theists and atheists, just as he hoped (2). Yet part of that communication requires that we name the ways in which a “religion without God,” which looks to mathematics and physics as the highest revelation of the “sublime,” is yet another totalizing metaphysical dream—one that places heavy burdens of knowing and mastering the cosmos as a closed system that can never be penetrated by any deeper meaning nor embraced by any ultimate love.

As such, onto-theology is deeply corrosive of those personal and humanistic values that find their wellspring in the lived and felt practices of communities of prayer and praise. Did Dworkin ever offer a secret song, prayer, or dance before a shrine for objective values? It would be remarkable if he did, for onto-theology does not contain the spiritual resources or depths that might free us to sing songs of receptive hope or joyful gratitude before the mystery of a divine love that is radically beyond our pretensions to philosophical, scientific, or even theological control. In the final analysis, this is why onto-theology must always be resisted: there is dignity and decorum in it, but no deeply humanizing community or life-sustaining joy.  



  1. Ronald Dworkin, Religion without God (Harvard University Press, 2013), 11.
  2. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, ed. Walter Kaufmann (Vintage Books, 1967), 67.
  3. Otto coined this term in his 1923 book, The Idea of the Holy.
  4. Otto does on occasion use the phrase “the numinous feeling,” but as his translator John W. Harvey writes, “it would certainly have been better had he always preferred the alternative phrase ‘the feeling of the numinous’ ” since “far from stressing the place of the subjective state of mind in the religious experience, Otto’s emphasis is always upon the objective reference, and upon subjective feelings only as the indispensible clues to this.” Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. John W. Harvey (Oxford University Press, 1958), xvi–xvii.
  5. Jürgen Habermas, An Awareness of What Is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age (Polity Press, 2010), 19.
  6. I am indebted in this insight to David Congdon, who generously read and responded to an early version of this article.
  7. Merold Westphal, Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith (Fordham University Press, 2001), 3.
  8. Ibid., 4.
  9. In addressing this topic, Westphal says he has “two audiences in mind, one quite secular (or at least anti-theistic), the other rather traditionally theological.” He goes on to say in the next paragraph, “The main argument of this essay has been addressed to the first audience,” i.e., to the secular or anti-theistic reader. Ibid., 22.
  10. Ibid., 6, 8.
  11. Ibid., 8.
  12. Ibid., 13.
  13. Ibid., 17–18.
  14. Ibid., 23–24.

Ronald Osborn is an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Peace and Justice Studies Program at Wellesley College and a 2015 Fulbright Scholar to Burma/Myanmar. He is the author of Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (IVP Academic, 2014), and Anarchy and Apocalypse: Essays on Faith, Violence and Theodicy (Wipf & Stock, 2010).

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Sarah Sentilles

In Review | Books & Art Incarnadine: Poems, by Mary Szybist. Graywolf Press, 72 pages, $16.

Apparition Hill, by Hayley Barker. May 2014 exhibit at the Charles A. Hartman Fine Art Gallery, 134 NW 8th Avenue, Portland, Oregon, May 2014. Online at

Hayley Barker, “She does not touch the ground” (Pray the Rosary Daily for World Peace), gouache on pamphlet, 5 ¼ x 3 ¼" (2014). Courtesy Haley Barker.

I have a confession to make: I think artists might be better at theology than many theologians are. I came to this conclusion while teaching at an art school. My students—painters, photographers, animators, performance artists, illustrators, sculptors—seem to understand instinctively what it took me years to learn: the world is made and can be unmade and remade. As makers, they know their constructions have material effects, and they want to be held accountable for the work their creations do in the world. Unlike many a theologian, my students would never confuse their image of a thing with the thing itself. They are comfortable in the gap, with mystery, with the unfinished—because that’s where art lives.

My professor at Harvard Divinity School, the late theologian Gordon Kaufman, taught me that theologians are artists. Their creations are not works of art to be hung on the wall, he said; rather, they are worlds to be lived in. Kaufman often pointed to Genesis, to the God who speaks words to bring the world into being, who uses clay and breath to make human beings. You see, he’d say. In this story God is a poet and a potter, and even though that doesn’t tell us much about God, it tells us a lot about what the authors thought about artists: They knew their work was world making.

Last spring, I met with two world-making artists, the painter Hayley Barker and the poet Mary Szybist. Both have made recent work about Mary, Jesus’s mother. Barker’s show Apparition Hill was made in response to a visit in 2013 to the village of Medjugorje in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a site of war and trauma. While there, she traveled to Apparition Hill, where people have reported seeing the Virgin Mary since 1981, and where thousands of pilgrims now go to try to see her, too. Szybist’s most recent book of poems, Incarnadine, for which she won the National Book Award in 2013, reimagines incarnation scenes everywhere.

While Barker and Szybist talked about their creative practices, about “repurposing traditions” rather than abandoning them, I couldn’t help but think of the iconoclasts, who aimed their hammers at the parts of the sculptures that mattered most—their open eyes and their noses. Vision and breath. They didn’t destroy the statues. They didn’t leave them unrecognizable. They simply made them incomplete, broken, missing something essential, and the holes, the emptiness, made sure no viewer would forget they were artifice, constructed, lest people get confused, lest people think the painting of the saint is the saint herself.

The Conscious Heart

On the Act of Creation and the Compassionate Teachings of Art.

Mary Anderson

Art Thou Art


Mary Anderson, Art Thou Art (In the honesty of pink and green, for Henry James); paint, brass wire and nails, architecture, light; temporary installation in the Marvelous Studio, Ucross Foundation, Clearmont, Wyoming (1997), detail. Courtesy Mary Anderson.


Creation is an act of love and it is perpetual.—Simone Weil1

In 1986, as a graduate student at the school of Visual Arts, I had the privilege of dialogue with several established visual artists, among them, Jackie Winsor, Michael Singer, and William Tucker. A recent arrival to New York City, I had just settled into my studio on West 21st Street and was beginning to sketch in space, feeling my way into form with a series of freestanding studies in cardboard. One particular sculpture remains in my mind. It consisted of two sheets of cardboard, each four feet high and standing on edge, one plane supporting the other. At the top edge of the front sheet I had made a vertical cut, slicing into the rectangle, part way, to create a curve in what was otherwise a flat plane. My aesthetic intention was to soften the cardboard’s rigidity, to transform its flatness into a rounded slope, alluding more to a body than a board. The formal result of my effort was neither a flat plane nor a curve but an awkward compromise—something bent, fraught with injury and metaphor, appearing to be what it innately was not. On seeing this work during a weekly studio visit, Michael Singer responded, “These things happen in life.”

Indeed, such things do happen in life, and not only in cardboard. At the time I did not grasp the plain truth of Michael’s words in their full dimension and weight. I was instead moved by their beauty, their imminent sensibility that traced an integral correspondence between life and art. Sounding a taproot within me, Michael’s words affirmed a gnosis, an intimate knowing within me that, paradoxically, I did not yet have knowledge of. In his response I intuitively recognized a truth and intention of art: that a simple inanimate form, wrought by human hands, would bear meaning, sensible relation, to the formless realities of human life.

In the decades since first hearing Michael’s words, I have experienced their plain truth, living into their immanent dimensions, their possibility and pathos, sublimity and weight. In the fine art of existence, I discovered, we are, at once and always, both the maker and the being made. Our living is an ongoing, relational event in which our acts, words, thoughts, are doubly generative, bearing subjective and objective effect. Like the sheet of cardboard (under the artist’s hand) we may, in the course of our making, be subjected to a vertical cut and, fraught with injury and metaphor, become innately other to ourselves. We are interstitial beings—conscious and not, awake yet asleep—whose form and words bear meaning in a shareable world, across a divide that marks us, ethically and aesthetically, for life. Not made by hands, yet moored in time and flesh, we are sentient, conscient, images in the making, continually negotiating this division within us, which is the bane and balm of a truly human life. Art and prayer—thought of here in their broadest sense as forms of dialogue—reveal and represent this ambivalent core, the very “heart” and horizon of our being and becoming human.


The work of art, like the work of prayer, dialogically traces and traverses this interstitial horizon of meaning within us. Each represents what I think of as the heart, le coeur, of dialogue, instantiating the revelatory dialectic at the heart of creation, and thus, at the heart of human language and subjectivity, representation and religiosity. In prayer and in the work of art we are, consciously and not, forming and being formed, participating in a dialogue that reiterates an originary and differential act of creation. The images and words that follow are adapted from a lecture I delivered at the Center for the Study of World Religions,2 originally scheduled for April 19, 2013—the day of the Boston area lockdown in the wake of the marathon bombing. The poignant eruption of this wanton violence as I prepared to speak on the conscious heart and the act of creation was sobering. Yet rather than stalling on the incapacity of language to address such pain and brutality, I was immediately drawn to reflect on the constitutive necessity and value of representation—words, images—their stabilizing presence within our fragile, uncertain, and embodied lives.

How does one speak about cultivating a conscious heart in the face of indiscriminate acts of terror that deny life itself in the denial of the life and value of the other? Can art and its compassionate teachings offer a sensible witness, a viable response, for countering such violence, its undertow of fear and ignorance of self and other, and, more precisely, of self as the other? Is compassion for life—for the life of the other person and our own—the real, if silent, meaning that is given form, dimension, and weight in the work, the labor, of art?

I do not presume to answer these questions. What I offer here is a response—part essay, part meditation—on the nature of representation, directing our attention to the dialogical, intersubjective, and empathic nature of the creative act, particularly in the making and viewing of art and within the practice of prayer. My thought will move somewhat seamlessly and silently between words and images—of contemporary art, Byzantine iconography, religious ritual—with the intention of creating a space for meaning to arise, not solely through my verbal articulation, but through a relational reality of perceiving word and image in the present moment.

Let me explain.


The icon of the Kardiotissa, silently present to us here on the page, is apparently an image, a devotional object, from Greek Orthodox Christianity. On its surface we see depicted a relation between the Virgin Mother and Child, yet, more deeply, we experience—perceptually, psychologically, corporeally—the space between the icon and ourselves. By looking at the icon we are, subjectively and objectively, brought into relation with it; its spatial proximity and distance engender within us a palpable awareness of relation. We do not simply see an object in front of our eyes but experience the space between the icon and ourselves—not myself, not the icon, but a third aspect, joining and differentiating us, holding us within an intersubjective, asymmetrical space of relation. “We never look at just one thing,” John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing; “we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves. Our vision is continually active, continually moving, . . . constituting what is present to us as we are.”3

The Virgin Kardiotissa


Angelos Akotantos, The Virgin Kardiotissa, icon on wood panel, 121 x 96.5 cm (first half of the fifteenth century). Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens.


Written for the practice of veneration, reverence, prayer, the Kardiotissa icon heightens our awareness of the meaning, the presence, that can arise and abide within this space of relation—between the viewer and the object, the lover and the absent beloved—made present, remembered, through the alterity and difference of an image. In a theological sense, the icon configures a visible face and relation for this absent other that is considered nonvisible, or not of the order of the visible, and thereby performs the revelatory dialectic of absence and presence intrinsic to representation itself. The Kardiotissa, whose name addresses the kardía, “the heart,” of creation, formally demonstrates that our vision takes place relationally and differentially. More deeply, given its religious intention, the icon shows us that this space of relation between a viewer and an object is, can be, holy ground. As an image that is believed to be “identical [tauton] with the prototype, even though it is other, different [eteron],”4 the Kardiotissa performs and illumines the interstitial core of creation—the differential space of meaning that takes place dia-logos—through logos, language, reason, Word—between myself and an other. Art, an image, reveals and reminds us that we become present to ourselves and to the world, through our relation to the other.

Seeing an image will thus mean listening,5 attuning oneself, to this differential space of relation that incorporates a distance, the aesthetic distance necessary for authentic vision to take place. To see is not only “to have at a distance,”6 as Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes; it is to behold and be held within—even here in digital reproduction—a relational reality that is plainly before us yet is also somehow beyond and within us. “The only evidence of truth in art exists when it compels us to say, ‘I see,’ ” writes Rabindranath Tagore—the Bengali poet, visual artist, writer, and Nobel laureate (1913)—in his Religion of Man.7 To say “I see,” in English as in Greek, can also mean “I know.” Art can be an epistemological practice, a practice of coming to know, of seeing and creating (with) a conscious heart.

Meaning, in this sense, becomes a verb, a present participle, a presencing at a horizon of relation that emerges in the proximity of form to form, image to image, word to image, and all in relation to you and me—the perceiving subject. As in the practice of contemplation—from the Latin contemplari, “to gaze attentively, observe, mark out a space for observation”8—meaning arises and abides, always, in the present—a moment of relation that cannot negate or erase the discrete meanings, intentions, or authorship of a historical image or form but is instead utterly dependent upon them. The present moment of meaning that we experience aesthetically, bodily, proprioceptively, in prayer and in the work of art, holds, at once, these apparent contradictories—the contingent and the eternal, the durative and the ephemeral, the particular—and through it—the common, the communal . . . communion. In the Christian scriptural tradition, the Prologue of the Gospel of John inscribes this paradox of apparent contradictories into the life of a human being; the eternal word, logos, is born into the finitude of flesh and pitches a tent among and within us (John 1:1–18). Through this eternal word, dia-logos, all things—I and Thou, your world and mine—come into being.


By conveying meaning materially and performatively—literally, through form—art not only directs our attention to that which is without words but also to the spaces between, behind, beneath, and within them. The processes and materials of art, its subjects and objects, test, negotiate, and extend the capacities of representation and human consciousness. “To be an artist is not a matter of paintings or objects at all,” writes Robert Irwin, an American installation artist whose work focuses on the experiential interface with the viewer. “What we are really dealing with,” Irwin explains, “is our state of consciousness and the shape of our perception.”9 In one early work, Untitled, from his 1967–68 aluminum disc series, Irwin perceptually merges image and environment through the materiality of light; the form’s white convex structure is illuminated such that its edges become mute, their definition fusing with the shadows it creates. “The act of art,” Irwin writes, emphasizing its agential, temporal, and ontological aspects, “is a tool for extended consciousness.”10

Untitled 1967


Robert Irwin, Untitled, acrylic lacquer on formed acrylic plastic, 46” H (1967). 2015 Robert Irwin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Reproduction, including downloading of ARS member works is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


The work of art performs a transposition of interior to exterior grounds; it awakens, mirrors, and translates aspects of self and psyche, moving and advancing consciousness both for the artist as maker and the viewer as perceiving subject. By limning a permeable boundary between subjective and objective spheres, the work of art pierces the shallow confines of my seemingly private world, revealing my depth, my subjectivity, but also my responsibility.

A Word Made Flesh . . . Throat (1994) by the American artist Lesley Dill echoes in contemporary visual idiom the narrative of incarnation inscribed in the Prologue of St. John.11 Its words, painted on the image of a woman’s throat, are the first two verses of an Emily Dickinson poem, “I am afraid to own a Body— / I am afraid to own a Soul.” They direct our attention to the burdens of consciousness, the requisite responsibilities of owning and mindfully claiming one’s somatic existence. Implicitly, Dickinson’s poem continues: “Profound—precarious Property— / Possession, not optional—Double Estate—entailed at pleasure / Upon an unsuspecting Heir— / Duke in a moment of Deathlessness / And God, for a Frontier.”12 Thus Dill’s photo-lithographic image tacitly carries the viewer beyond its actual frame to the oscillating boundaries of the body, a precarious property bearing infinite and finite aspects. Through art, its labor and its objecthood, my singular world is inverted, turned inside out, acquiring an ethical face and existence within a world of relation. Art, its sentient, formal, and ethical intelligences, mimetically incorporates the lessons of our own conscient embodiment.


Images are relational, intersubjective phenomena; they incorporate, emerge from, and are a form of dialogue. When we are present to, with or within, a work of art, it has the capacity to make us present to ourselves. Like prayer and its inwardness, art is not only an expressive event, presenting a tangible surface; it may also be a contemplative act, a practice of beholding, of resting the mind in the heart. This act of beholding is itself an act of making, an attending with the heart and the hand for the artist and viewer alike. Not solely the domain of traditional religious art and aesthetics, prayer becomes an event of orientation, of creating with an intentional and attentive heart. The artist’s capacity to work in and through and with material, bringing intention to a visible surface and form, cultivates this passionate quality of presence, an inmost attending to the work, the labor, of creation. In his compelling monograph, Devotional Cinema, the experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky testifies to this ontological sensibility of art. “I began to experience film as a direct and intimate metaphor or model for our being, a model which had the potential to be transformative, to be an evocation of spirit, and to become a form of devotion.” Film, Dorsky attests, can subvert our absorption in the temporal and expose the real measure of our being in the world. “It is,” he tells us, “alive as a devotional form.”13

In Dorsky’s words, which define devotion not within an institutional form but as an opening that “allows us to experience what is hidden, and to accept with our hearts our given situation,”14 we find an apt description of prayer. Like art, prayer is a dialogical and generative act, a beholding and a being held, in which we become present to ourselves through the other. Like prayer, art reorients “our absorption in the temporal and reveals the depths of our own reality, opening us to a fuller sense of ourselves and our world.”15 In seventeenth-century Russia, St. Dimitri of Rostov bore similar witness: “The principal thing is to stand with the mind in the heart before God,” he instructs. “Every prayer must come from the heart, and any other prayer is no prayer at all.”16 What an exquisite criterion for art, and for the creative act, that it recognizes its devotional origin and necessity. Art, as a form of prayer, teaches and attends this necessity, touching the inmost aspects of our being and our world. Might we then say that art, to be real—a real measure of our being in the world—must come from the heart, or it is not art at all?


It is possible to experience art in the way martin Buber speaks about language: “The word,” he writes, “is an abyss through which the speaker strides. One should speak words as if the heavens were opened in them. And as if it were not so that you take the word in your mouth, but rather as if you entered into the word.”17 The beauty of Buber’s words is their emphasis on our intention when speaking, his recognition of the word as a sphere of relation, dia-logos, through which we come to be, within which we live and move and have our being (cf. Acts 17:28). What an extraordinary difference there is between “taking the word in your mouth” and “entering into the word.” Art offers a space to experience this difference of intention, the difference between appropriation and reception, between grasping and listening, between talking about a thing, objectifying it, and being in dialogue with it.

At the Edge of the World I


Anish Kapoor, At the Edge of the World I, fiberglass, paint, and pigment, 500 x 800 x 800 cm (1997). Anish Kapoor / courtesy Lisson Gallery, London.


Anish Kapoor’s installation, At the Edge of the World I (1997), offers us an image and bodily experience of this edge of language, what it might feel like to enter the word, being born into a differential sphere of relation, dwelling in the interstice between womb and world. In this work of art we see represented a primary sphere of relation, the priority of the mother and of language, our first experience of otherness, intersubjectivity, and dialogue, within and without. “There is language, there is art,” George Steiner writes, “because there is the other.”18 The Hebrew Bible’s Deuteronomy inscribes this priority of the other within us, using a language of embodiment and interiority: “the word is very near you, it is in your mouth and in your heart, for you to observe” (Deuteronomy 30:14).

Roni Horn’s 1992–93 How Dickinson Stayed Home19 offers another opportunity to enter the world through Emily Dickinson’s words, “My Business is Circumference.” Horn’s sculptural installation draws into one experience the volume of a room and a sentence, words made tangible so that they can be read, felt, navigated, and bumped into in space and time. Horn’s art tells us that our business is circumference as well, negotiating a sphere of relation in which words, our words and others’, matter. Words have color, edges, weight; they occupy space; they take time; they live within, among, and—amazingly—without us. A second work by Horn, Limit of the Twilight (1991–2000), affords another sense of the word wherein its meaning extends far beyond its physical size or literal reference. If we enter into—are present to—this art, we experience the incongruous coincidence of meaning that moves beyond words yet is represented within them. Horn’s title for the work recognizes these capacities and liminalities of language, distilling a seemingly infinite distance into the matter and measure of words.20


An image, a work of art, can lead you through an abyss and open the heavens within you; it may receive you, meet you, stun or awaken you into being present, mindful, sensible. Through the alterity and exteriority of art—it is other than me even when it is made by me—the artist and viewer can experience a shift or alignment in their internal and external worlds, effecting an awareness of human interrelationality. The asymmetrical encounter between persons, and between a viewer and a work of art, represents a reality that the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has called “inter-being.” A conscious heart intends and reaches toward (what I think of as) this porous reality of the “inter-,” an ethical sphere of relation that is a differential locus of meaning, living between us as community and within us as individual human beings.

In the Christian tradition this reality of inter-being is symbolized in several ways: it is the eternal word, logos, dwelling within and among us (John 1:14); it is being born anew, of the Spirit (John 3:3); and it is the event of Christ—a constitutive calling, birthing, anointing, and ordaining of the heart that takes place within our inmost being. To become aware of this ineffable act of creation within is to be hailed, broken open, and fragilized by the other—the Beloved, pure consciousness, God, the true Self (atman), my neighbor . . . alterity in any form—and to begin walking the way of love. Art is, can be, an intentional practice that incites this waking and walking, resuscitating our sensibility, our devotion, creating within us a clean, courageous, and conscious heart.

By making us present to ourselves, the practices of art, like that of prayer, can cultivate awareness of one’s inmost heart. Hindu and Buddhist traditions symbolize this interiority with the Sanskrit word guha. Writing of the three hearts of human being—the anatomical heart, the emotional heart, and the spiritual heart, or guha—Swami Tyagananda, a Hindu monastic of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society, describes the guha as “the center of higher consciousness, the seat of the true Self (atman).” He quotes the Katha Upanishad (2.1.12), which speaks of our difficulty in seeing the Self (atman), “because it is lodged inaccessibly deep in the cave of the heart” and obscured, clothed, by the body and the senses.21 The Vishvakarma, the single chaitya-griha (prayer hall), among the twelve Buddhist caves at Ellora, Maharashtra, India (ca. 700 CE), formally symbolizes this intimate reserve—a literal cave of the heart—in the solemn stillness of earth and stone.22 Carved out of time, labor, and solid basalt rock, the Vishvakarma immerses the viewer or praying subject within an archaic interiority, architecturally miming both the priority of the womb and the prayer’s subjective terrain.

Burned and Red


Jackie Winsor, Burned and Red Inside Out Piece, wood and paint, 30 x 30 x 30” (1985). Jackie Winsor / courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York / photo: Eeva-Inkeri.


Jackie Winsor’s sculpture Burned and Red Inside Out Piece (1985) represents this formal configuration of interior and exterior relations in modern, post-minimalist idiom. In this contemporary icon of dialogue and duration, accretional layers of plywood, plaster, and pigment amass into a structure that embodies and performs the existential dialectic of inwardness and outwardness, breathing relation between a still, unseen interior and an exterior, visible surface. The work’s title—a straightforward description of its physical state—nonetheless resounds the spatial, ontological inversion that takes place in the birthing of form. Winsor’s Open Cube (1983), in which the six sides of a volumetric cube open to become a flat cross, physically enacts this turning inside out, realizing, in stark metaphor, the risk involved when enclosure becomes exposure: that birth is also a death. Evocative of Orthodox double-sided icons, which depict Virgin and Child on one side of a wood panel and the Crucifixion on the other, Open Cube formally holds and signifies a coincidence of opposites, showing us that form requires, as Martin Buber affirms, both risk and sacrifice. Winsor’s Interior Sphere Piece (1985), wherein a hidden sphere inhabits the interior of a windowed cube, embodies a similar coincidence of opposites, lending volume and tangibility to the intrapsychic, archetypal ideal of squaring the circle. In its mirrored surfaces the surrounding world becomes the living skin of the form, reflecting and absorbing the external environment into itself and its continual making. In Winsor’s art one can hear and experience Tagore’s prescient words, “The consciousness of the real within me seeks for its own corroboration the touch of the Real outside me.”23 Art teaches this coincidence and permeability of subjective and objective spheres. As it instructs us in the limitations of form, it enlarges our awareness of the possibilities and responsibilities of our material embodiment.

Open Cube


Jackie Winsor, Open Cube, plaster, pigment, wire lath, and wood, 96 x 72 x 3” (1983). Jackie Winsor / courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.



Contemplatives throughout the centuries have offered symbolic representation for the inmost waking to love and walking toward a conscious heart. In the Christian tradition, Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle charts this interior and incarnational path of prayer. Through the metaphor of the silkworm she describes the initial seeding in one’s soul, the inward turn that nourishes a certainty of God’s presence, and the self-made cocoon that shelters the soul as it dies to new birth. Teresa’s resonant metaphor symbolically incorporates the mystery of the Incarnation, the way of love represented in the sacred narrative of Christianity, the life of Christ—Annunciation, Nativity/Crucifixion, Resurrection—as a human experience. The silkworm, its dying to receive life, offers a natural image for the inner formation of a conscious heart through a practice of surrender, obedience, prayer, and service. “Religious experience,” Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “is inevitably human experience. It has to do with the human consciousness, both individual and collective.”24

Carrying the Skeleton


Marina Abramović, Carrying the Skeleton, C-print (2008). 2015 Marina Abramović / courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives and Sean Kelly Gallery / (ARS) New York. Reproduction, including downloading of ARS member works is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


Art traces these movements of human consciousness, within and without, individual and collective. Like religion, art provides a form, a representational and interpretive vehicle, for that which we live through, embody, and carry within us yet often cannot see. We are, as the Katha Upanishad states, in our own way, clothed, impeded in our effort at Self-seeing. Like Winsor’s Open Cube, we need to be turned inside out. Marina Abramović’s durational performances address this desire and necessity for seeing oneself in and through the other; they envision this possibility with humor, stamina, and pathos by being in the present moment and residing in its possibility. “Performance,” Abramović states, “is about being in the present, it’s about creating a luminous state of being.”25 Abramović’s Carrying the Skeleton (2008) performs the somatic threshold of visibility, lending time and a body to the transpositioning of inside to out that we have been formally and symbolically tracing here. In this work, the core structural support of the body, its interior armature, becomes a companion to carry, a living with death, a walking labor of love and its cross. Religious experience is the experience of our humanity and its heart, le coeur, becoming conscious, incarnate, within us. These things happen in life, and art.

Hallowed Be Thy Name


Mary Anderson, Hallowed Be Thy Name (wax, landscape, architecture, light), temporary installation in Auchindoir/St. Mary’s Parish Church, Lumsden, Aberdeenshire, Scotland (1996). Courtesy Mary Anderson.


In my life, my art anticipated and proleptically represented these movements of consciousness and heart. In 1996, while on a Fulbright in Scotland, I created two installations in which the coincidence of birth and death, and the movement between interior and exterior grounds, was symbolized. I sited twenty cast wax busts in the graveyard of a thirteenth-century church; its four stone walls were without a roof, open to the skies. Each wax figure was placed by a gravestone that bore a woman’s name, near the base of the stone, closest to the earth, after the names of fathers, husbands, and sons. My intent in their placement was to unearth the hidden and the forgotten by giving it physical form. The work’s title, Hallowed Be Thy Name (1996),26 carried a double sense of the holy, bringing into relation the name of a human being, a woman who had lived and died, with a verse from the Lord’s Prayer. I sought to hallow this confluence of life and language, lending visible beauty to that which is between and beneath, nonvisible, not of the order of the visible, and sacred. The wax casts were first sited in the kirkyard and then within the walls of the ancient, roofless church. A year later, at the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming, I created Art Thou Art (In the honesty of pink and green, for Henry James) (1997),27 in which language visibly speaks the dialogical relation of self and other. Its repeating text moves from a question above, “Art Thou,” to a statement below, “Thou Art,” as it crosses a horizon situated at my eye level. While its palette and subtitle refer to a phrase in Henry James’s 1884 essay “The Art of Fiction,” this work’s meaning weighs the beauty and reality of belief, offering shape and voice to the formless through form, to the real through the represented. Art testifies to this interstitial horizon within, without, and between us.



Dialogue is integral to the act of creation and the work of art. Through a dialogue with the material other, the artist lends form to formlessness, at the edges of a world that is both present and absent, engaging the self and the other. John Berger’s “soon after we can see, we are aware that we can also be seen” identifies the intersubjective core of relation enacted within art and prayer. Each mediates and expresses our essential dependence upon the other, whose “eye . . . combines with our own eye to make it fully credible that we are part of the visible world.”28

The acts of making and perceiving undertaken by the artist and viewer trace this primary sense of the inter-, a space between, the intersubjective ground wherein consciousness becomes self-consciousness in relation to, and through, an other. “A person comes to feel that ‘I am the doer who does, I am the author of my acts,’ by being with another person who recognizes her acts, her feelings, her intentions, her existence, her independence,” writes Jessica Benjamin in the context of articulating a psychoanalytic theory of intersubjectivity that includes an intrapsychic concept of the self. “Recognition is the essential response,” Benjamin affirms, “the constant companion of assertion. The subject declares, ‘I am, I do’, and then waits for the response, ‘You are, you have done.’ Recognition is, thus, reflexive; it includes not only the other’s confirming response, but also how we find ourselves in that response. We recognize ourselves in the other, and we even recognize ourselves in inanimate things. . . .”29

This underlying truth of our humanity is enacted in the Hindu ritual of darśan, in which, like the Christian icon, a devotional image articulates a space of relation, a holy seeing between the devotee and deity. “It is this fact of presence which is at the basis of darśan,” writes Diana Eck. “People come to see because there is something very powerful there to see.”30 Art and prayer, in similar and different ways, provide a vantage point of alterity—an ekstasis, or “standing beside oneself”—from which we may begin to see ourselves. Through the otherness of art, its presence and its objecthood, my work and world are turned toward the other, revealed to have an ethical existence. Art confronts and affronts us; its otherness calls us, in the Levinasian sense, into question,31 initiating us to alternative ways of seeing. “Gaining this vantage point, however, . . . can be doubly disclosive. . . . [A]t the same moment that the world is given to me beyond measure, the impairment in my own vision is exposed.”32



Fred Wilson, Mine/Yours, framed photograph, ceramic and plastic figures, and wood, overall (variable), 11 x 24 x 11” (1995). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchased with funds from Joanne Leonhardt Cassullo, the Dorothea L. Leonhardt Foundation, Inc., and the Katherine Schmidt Shubert Purchase Fund. 96.52a-j.


Fred Wilson’s piercing Mine/Yours (1995) provokes this double exposure of self through the other. Siting Mine—an old photograph of a rural African American family—side by side with Yours—eight stereotypic ceramic figurines of Aunt Jemima, Uncle Tom, and Little Black Sambo, two of which are eating watermelon33—Wilson’s art unveils the bias in my vision, the insidious cultural, racial, and aesthetic blinders which prevent our seeing the reality and personhood of an other. An aesthetic herald to the ethics of seeing and representing difference, Mine/Yours offers trenchant witness to the appropriative and recalibrative capacities of representation. Wilson’s installation is an incisive instance of the ethical labor of art, its jarring and agile ability to unmask and accuse our familiar modes of vision, fracturing our personal and cultural constructions of oppression. Authentic art has this revelatory capacity for exposure; it not only compels us to say, “I see,” as in Tagore’s insight, “it risks exposing the log in my own eye (cf. Matthew 7:3–4, Luke 6:41–42).”34 In this sense, the dialogical imperative of art can lead us both to caution and to compassion, demanding reflection on what human being can mean, ought to mean, and even what it, we, cannot, can never, mean.

Such intentional seeing in the practices of art and prayer will bring us face to face with the fragility of life, and belief, in our encounters with love and mortality. In his video The Quintet of the Astonished (2000),35 Bill Viola presents us with the other side of crucifixion, allowing us to stare and wonder at an unseen grief, to contemplate the aching motility of human feeling in the faces of five other people. In this work we witness the event of the others’ witnessing; their countenances present a facial topography of bereavement, shock, pain, as emotion inhabits and convulses their bodies. In muted and slowed motion, we see the affective, embodied, impress of an event absented from our view yet taking place before us, between us, in the very space in which we, the viewers, stand. Not only do we see the fragility of the other, but, by this very seeing, we are implicated in this empathic interval, as rivers of affect, unmeasured and unknown, silently pass before our eyes. In their clothed yet exposed bodies, we face our own sentience, recognize our own nakedness and vulnerability. Through this work of art’s relational interface, one experiences, glimpses, the practice of tonglen, a form of Buddhist meditation or prayer in which I exchange myself for an other, breathing in their pain and breathing out love. In Quintet of the Astonished, we bear witness to art’s differential and relational truth; we too become the astonished.

Quintett of the Astonished


Bill Viola, The Quintet of the Astonished (2000), color video rear projection on screen mounted on wall in dark room. 15:20 minutes. Performers: John Malpede, Weba Garretson, Tomn Fitzpatrick, John Fleck, Dan Gerrity. Photo: Kira Perov.


Art that compels us to truth, to say “I see,” represents life so that we may recognize it, enter it, and receive it as our own. In art’s dialogue, with and through the alterity of the material other, the processes of art—seeing, creating, re-presenting, beholding—become ethical and empathic forms of witness that teach us to listen, to pray, to grow in compassion for life, the sentient life of my neighbor as well as my own. “Only love is capable of being aesthetically productive,” writes Mikhail Bakhtin, addressing the fact that lovelessness and indifference have no power to sustain a presence, to attend, or linger over, the work of art.36 Might we then say, or at least ponder the possibility, that compassion is the real meaning, the labor, of art?



  1. Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, trans. Arthur Wills (University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 78.
  2. “The Conscious Heart: On the Act of Creation and the Compassionate Teachings of Art,” September 24, 2013, Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard Divinity School. I am grateful to Francis X. Clooney, S.J., director of the center, and to former junior fellow Leslie Hubbard for the invitation to speak as part of her lecture series, “Beyond Words: Intersections of Meditation, Visual Art, Sacred Music and Dance across Religious and Cultural Boundaries.”
  3. John Berger, Ways of Seeing (BBC and Penguin Books, 1972), 9.
  4. Gregory of Nyssa (Ep. 38, 9). See “Letter 35, To Peter . . . ,” in Anna M. Silvas, Gregory of Nyssa: The Letters (Brill, 2007), 247–256.
  5. Seeing, as in the Greek theoria: contemplation, a looking at, a beholding.
  6. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” in Primacy of Perception, ed. James M. Edie (Northwestern University Press, 1964), 166.
  7. Rabindranath Tagore, “The Artist,” in The Religion of Man (The Macmillan Company, 931), 135.
  8. See
  9. Robert Irwin, from a list of statements compiled for his 1998 exhibition at the Dia Center, 548 West 22nd Street, New York, NY.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Lesley Dill, A Word Made Flesh . . . Throat; photo-lithograph, color etching, and aquatint on tea-stained mulberry paper, hand sewn on buff wove paper, 747 x 560 mm (image/primary support);
    765 x 566 mm (secondary support).
  12. Emily Dickinson, Poem 1090, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Little, Brown and Company), 493–494.
  13. Nathaniel Dorsky, Devotional Cinema (Tuumba Press, 2005), 18.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. St. Dimitri of Rostov, “The Inner Closet of the Heart,” in The Art of Prayer, trans. E. Kadlaubovsky and E. M. Palmer, ed. Timothy Ware (Faber and Faber, 1997), 63.
  17. Martin Buber, “The Life of the Hasidim (1908),” in The Martin Buber Reader, Essential Writings, ed. Asher Biemann (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 80.
  18. George Steiner, Real Presences (University of Chicago Press, 1989), 137.
  19. Roni Horn, How Dickinson Stayed Home; plastic and aluminum (1993). Collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
  20. Roni Horn, Limit of the Twilight; solid aluminum and white plastic, 22 x 22 x 137 cm , (1991–2000).
  21. Swami Tyagananda, “The Heart Beyond Hearts,” in Traversing the Heart: Journeys of the Inter-Religious Imagination, ed. Richard Kearney and Eileen Rizo-Patron (Brill, 2010), 193.
  22. Mary Anderson, “On Seeing the Birth of the Heart,” in ibid., 418.
  23. Tagore, “The Artist,” 129.
  24. Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ (Riverhead Books, 1995),180.
  25. Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2010), 150.
  26. Mary Anderson, Hallowed Be Thy Name (wax, landscape, architecture, light), temporary installation in Auchindoir/St. Mary’s Parish Church, Lumsden, Aberdeenshire, Scotland (1996). 
  27. Mary Anderson, Art Thou Art (paint, brass wire and nails, architecture, light), temporary installation in the Marvelous Studio, Ucross Foundation, Clearmont, Wyoming (1997). I am grateful to the foundation for a one-month artist residency.
  28. Berger, Ways of Seeing, 9
  29. Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination (Pantheon Books, 1988), 20–21.
  30. Diana L. Eck, Darśan: Seeing the Divine Image in India (Columbia University Press, 1998), 51.
  31. Emmanuel Levinas, “Ethics as First Philosophy,” in The Levinas Reader, ed. Seán Hand (Blackwell, 1989), 81.
  32. Mary Anderson, “Art and Inter-Religious Dialogue,” in The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Inter-Religious Dialogue, ed. Catherine Cornille (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 100.
  33. Fred Wilson, Mine/Yours (1995). From the press release for an exhibition at the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY;
  34. Anderson, “Art and Inter-Religious Dialogue,” 100.
  35. Bill Viola, The Quintet of the Astonished (2000) color video rear projection on screen mounted on wall in dark room; projected size 1.4 x 2.4 m, room dimensions variable, 15:20 minutes.
  36. Mikhail Bakhtin, Toward A Philosophy of the Act, trans. Vadim Liapunov, ed. Vadim Liapunov and Michael Holquist (University of Texas Press, 1993), 64.

Mary Anderson, a graduate of Harvard (MTS ’02, PhD ’11) and the School of Visual Arts (MFA ’88), is an interdisciplinary scholar and artist, currently an associate at the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University and affiliate scholar at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.

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Two Poems

Paula Bohince

The Kegon Falls

Water-tumbler, breaking its back
against cliffs that guide the appointed death-
route. It rises, whitely,
ghost-like before dying entire. All
of life—rains, roe twitching
into swimmers, mud’s strangulations,
ache of sun like oppressive love—crashes
up. First freedom, first triumph.

—After the woodblock print The Kegon Falls by Keisai Eisen, 1789–1848, Japan

The Kegon Falls


Kegon no taki, santaki no sono ikkei (The Kegon Falls, One of the Three Waterfalls), circa 1845. Mackelvie Trust Collection, Auckland Art Gallery Toi O Tāmaki.



A Mother Dressing Her Son in a Kimono

He stands, suddenly more man than animal,
but naked and bald-headed, his penis a bashful sprig.
Spring has delivered its news. She kneels
and guides the sleeves over fresh muscles. Her breasts
retreat back to ornament. The romance of their first
year together, milky nights in bed, quietly ends.

—After the woodblock print A Mother Dressing Her Son in a Kimono by Suzuki Harunobo, 1724–1770, Japan

A Mother Dressing Her Son in a Kimono


A Mother Dressing Her Son in a Kimono. Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, UK / Bridgeman Images.




Paula Bohince is the author of The Children (2012) and Incident at the Edge of Bayonet Woods (2008), which was nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The Irish Times, The Nation, Granta, Slate, and The Yale Review. She received the 2013 George Bogin Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America.

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See also: Poetry

What Does Work Mean to Widows in Afghanistan?

In the context of serial wars, liberal agendas of care are problematic.

Anila Daulatzai

Bakery in Kabul


Daulatzai worked in this widow-run bakery as part of her fieldwork in Kabul. The bakery work program, sponsored by the World Food Programme, exemplifies the neoliberal forms of governance and care proliferating in Afghanistan since 2002. Photo: Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos.


I first met Rehana eighteen months after her husband had left this world, which is how Afghans express that someone has died. Rehana’s husband, Kareem, had been a police cadet at the Afghan National Police Academy. He died in a spectacular suicide bombing in the center of Kabul on June 17, 2007, that took the lives of thirty-five people: ten cadets, thirteen police instructors, a bus driver, and eleven bystanders. The explosion was so powerful it sheared off the roof and the sides of the bus and scattered shards of glass and metal for miles, injuring more than fifty additional bystanders. It was the deadliest attack since the Taliban left Kabul in 2001. Given the magnitude of human loss, and because the attack took place in the heart of the capital city, this suicide bombing made both national and international headlines.

Hamid Karzai, then president, immediately referred to the victims of the attack as shahidan (“martyrs,” in Dari) and announced that the Afghan state would organize and pay for the funerals of the police cadets and instructors killed in the attack. Karzai also promised that a special fund would be created to provide for the families of the shahidan.

I had been in Kabul for two years, conducting fieldwork among widows and their families and also teaching at two universities in Kabul, when, in December 2008, one of my students asked me if I would be willing to volunteer my expertise to assist the Afghan Ministry of Interior (hereafter, MoI) in determining how best to support the families of those killed in the suicide bombing. My student, Jabar, was working for a German NGO that was partnering with the MoI on one of the special programs created to support the families of this particular suicide bombing.

I met with Jabar to discuss the expectations of his NGO as well as those of the MoI: my responsibilities were to visit the widows and their families, administer a survey, review the results, and make recommendations to the MoI as to how the widows could best be supported. My previous work with Afghan refugees in Pakistan during the earlier wars (in the 1990s and early 2000s) and my interactions with Afghans in Kabul during the current war and occupation had made me very sensitive to their unique circumstances. I had witnessed both the buildup of anticipation and hope and the sense of betrayal and disappointment that often followed when institutions were unable to meet the promises their officials had made. So, after my meeting with Jabar, I went to see an administrator in the MoI. I wanted to be certain that I understood the extent of what the state was able and willing to offer to the families before I gave the families any indication that the state would help them.

When I met with the administrator of this particular MoI program, he bluntly instructed me to conduct a survey. I advised him that a survey was perhaps an inappropriate tool to gather the information that was ultimately being sought, and I assured him that I would get the necessary information using more sensitive methods. My insistence on a different approach had to do with my worries for the families in pain and the inappropriateness of a survey in that particular context. But, aside from that, I had been concerned—for a while already—about the remarkably low quality of policy-related research conducted in Afghanistan, resulting in an overreliance on poorly designed surveys. Nevertheless, the administrator insisted on the survey.

After I read the initial questions, I was even more convinced that I could not use the survey, and I tried again to encourage the administrator to allow another approach to obtain the same, if not more useful, information. He continued to insist on the survey, while I began to systematically demonstrate how insensitive the questions were. He became particularly embarrassed by the first question—“When did you become a widow?”—since the exact date and time of the attack were clearly known and, in all likelihood, the women had all become widows at that moment. The administrator eventually capitulated but he stated that, no matter what methods I used, he would need specific information on the kinds of jobs the widows wanted and whether they would be willing to begin work immediately. The survey he had devised included a list of the jobs the widows could choose from: baking bread, making jam, gardening, cleaning/janitorial work at universities, and, if they had the skills, embroidery. “Have them choose which one they want to do,” the MoI administrator told me. Jobs were the objective. Women who were widowed in this suicide attack were finally going to be given some form of assistance, assistance that Karzai himself had promised via presidential decree eighteen months earlier. And the form this care was to take? Jobs for these widows.

My few objectives in this piece are these: First, I want to provide a brief ethnography1 of widowhood in Kabul. My understanding of what it means to be a widow in contemporary Kabul grew out of my friendships with the families who lost loving husbands and friends in this attack on the police cadets in June 2007; but I also owe my understanding to the many widows I met, came to know, and, in many cases, befriended during my four years of anthropological fieldwork in Kabul between 2006 and 2011. Second, I will briefly discuss neoliberalism and neoliberal governance in Kabul, in order to demonstrate how neoliberal patterns of thought work alongside serial war and humanitarianism in ways that produce—and privilege—certain modes of being a widow, while precluding the possibility for others. Thus, this also becomes an account of the shape lives take when they do not easily fit into tired narratives of the current war in Afghanistan, or of the wars that came to Afghanistan before 2001. Finally, I hope this brief piece may serve as an account, not only of unremitting struggle, of exhaustion, pain, and humiliation, but of patience, endurance, and grace; and that it may remind us about those discourses that obscure ethical obligations to address and duly acknowledge liability for the harm caused.

Zakat is the obligatory money—a percentage of income—that Muslims give as an act of worship. In Islam, widows fall under the category of rightful or deserving recipients of zakat.

To avoid potential confusion over my use of specific terms, I will briefly define how I employ these words. Since one of my goals is to demonstrate how policies of neoliberalism are at play in Afghanistan, I should briefly share my understanding of neoliberalism and how I use it here. In my view, David Harvey provides the most productive definition: “Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.”2 Harvey also references Paul Treanor, who writes: “. . . neoliberalism is not simply an economic structure, it is a philosophy. This is most visible in attitudes to society, the individual and employment. . . . The idea of employability is characteristically neoliberal. It means that neoliberals see it as a moral duty of human beings, to arrange their lives to maximise their advantage on the labour market. . . . [It is] an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide for all human action, and substituting for all previously held ethical beliefs.” Moreover, Treanor also says that “the general neoliberal vision is that every human being is an entrepreneur managing their own life, and should act as such.”3

I do not use the word “liberalism” (or “liberal”) to refer to a political position (or to one who espouses such a position) that is in opposition to conservatism. Instead, “liberalism,” as I use it, indicates the attitudes manifest in many instances of feminism or secularism, or by those who take on political positions they identify as left, radical, or anarchist, as well. Liberalism thus takes on many forms, but can best be recognized as thought or practice that reveres individual equality and freedom without concern for material equalities or, more precisely, inequalities.4

I use the word “serial” throughout this piece to recalibrate understandings of contemporary Afghanistan that seem to focus only on the current war in Afghanistan or that only emphasize the suffering of women at the hands of the Taliban. Thus, when I speak of serial wars, I include the thirteen-year war and occupation still underway in Afghanistan (2001–present), the five years of Taliban rule (1996–2001), what I refer to as the Kabul wars (1992–1996), and the ten years of Soviet occupation (1979–1989). In so doing, I hope to emphasize the durational quality of thirty-five years of war in the lives of Afghans.

Zakat is the obligatory money—a percentage of income—that Muslims give as an act of worship. This money is redistributed to those facing hardship. In Islam, widows fall under the category of rightful or deserving recipients of zakat. In addition to zakat, Muslims are encouraged to offer sadaqa (voluntary) care to widows and orphans in whatever way possible. Many Islamic states, such as Pakistan, collect zakat from their Muslim citizens and redistribute it to those entitled to receive it. In Afghanistan, except for a brief period between 1880 and 1901, zakat was never regulated by the state. During Taliban rule, attempts to systematically collect zakat were made in certain areas of Afghanistan. However, after the fall of the Taliban, President Karzai issued a decree specifying that zakat was a personal matter and that Afghans needed to manage their moral obligations to the needy on their own. Zakat is an institution that is familiar to Afghans, and they know it as something they can, potentially, depend on.

I was given a list with the names of the “martyrs”5 and their “addresses” to start my work on the MoI project. More precisely, it was a list of the districts in Kabul where their homes were located and descriptions to help identify each house (for example: next to the bakery with a green door; facing the cemetery and next to the kite shop; find shopkeeper Abdullah at the corner general store and he will escort you to the front door). Everyone in each neighborhood knew where the widows and orphans of this suicide attack lived; in general, in any district in Kabul, most everyone knows the houses where widows and orphans reside.

I walked into the courtyard and was met by Rehana’s father-in-law, Kareem’s father. I introduced myself by telling him that I was there to speak to the widow of Kareem, to see how she was and to learn about her life since she lost her husband. He led me inside the house, where first I met his wife. I sat down on the floor cushions with her and a young child of about five years old, Kareem’s nephew, Rasheed. As I sat talking with the mother, the father went to summon Rehana. Meanwhile, Rasheed got up and returned seconds later with a framed copy of Kareem’s official police photo. Kareem’s mother held the picture to her chest and began wailing. Rasheed started crying. Rehana, a shy girl of nineteen years, entered the room. She had married Kareem when she was seventeen, and she was pregnant with their first child when he was killed. The baby was asleep in the next room.

As Rehana sat down with me and her mother-in-law, her father-in-law asked if he could sit with us.6 Then, for more than three hours they told me, through their tears, about the kind of person Kareem was—the dreams he had, the jokes he told. As they shared the life of this young man with me, they repeatedly said it was the will of Allah that he was no longer in this world. Although they knew this was the work of Allah and accepted it, they could not reconcile how to make a life without seeing him every day. They told me that they had not gotten through one single day since the attack without sitting and crying together, as they were then, with me.

Eventually, I asked Rehana how she could be helped. She asked what I meant. I told her that I had been asked to see what kind of help the widows of the police cadets wanted, and needed. She asked me to keep her and her child and family in my duas (prayers).

“What else?” I asked.

When I had first arrived at the house, I had made it very clear that I did not work for the state but had come to help her figure out how the state could assist her.7 The family told me that they were utterly exhausted from trying to get any of the compensation promised them during the past eighteen months. They were surprised that the state was now interested in helping Rehana.

“What help do they want to give me?” she asked.

“Work . . . they want to give you work, and they ask what job you want to do.”

The otherwise shy Rehana looked at me and vehemently repeated: “A job? That is how they want to help me? By getting me a job? I don’t want a job. I want to care for my son, and be with my family. I don’t want a job. This pain, struggle to get through a day, this is enough work. I cannot do more work than this.”

I had realized before the words left my mouth how absurd it was to convey the offer of a job to her. I was ashamed as I thought of the times during my fieldwork of the previous two years—standing in line with widows at distribution sites throughout the city of Kabul as they received their monthly rations, or sitting on the streets of Kabul with widows who were seeking alms from passing cars—when I had myself wondered why these women did not prefer to work, relying instead on the obligations of care from fellow Muslims, strangers and family alike. Would getting a job not be a more dignified way to navigate life as a widow in Kabul? It was only as I sat with Rehana and her in-laws that I realized how inappropriate it was for me to think that waged work would somehow “rescue” widows from this “dependence,” which is inherent in their haqq (right, entitlement) to be cared for by others.

During the course of that month, I eventually met with twenty-seven of the thirty-one families on my list. As I went from house to house, the women who were widowed in this attack (and their families) all expressed their dismay that the only offer of assistance from the state was a job. After visiting all but four families, I went back to the MoI and tried to convince the administrators to consider another form of assistance. They made it clear to me that they could not change the terms of the assistance. They explained that the reason it took so long (eighteen months after the bomb blast) to get any kind of help in the first place was that they were waiting on a funding line for a program that could help the women who were widowed in the attack. The German NGO funding the initiative through the MoI was beginning a gender empowerment program, and the MoI administrators saw this as an opportunity to include the widows in that initiative by prioritizing them—empowering these women by getting them jobs.

Every Afghan family I met had widows in their homes. Afghans across the political spectrum, across class, take the obligation for the care of widows very much to heart.

In the context of this international occupation, it is the agenda of donors that ultimately governs the thinking behind the practices of the Afghan state (per very specific criteria that will either enable or disable funding mechanisms). In fact, it was not at all unusual for this program aiming to support the widows to be primarily a gender empowerment program. A substantial amount of the billions of dollars of development aid that has poured into Afghanistan has come in the form of programs targeting gender—which in itself would not preclude the inclusion of males, but in a post-Taliban Kabul, these programs were specified as for women only. Lest we forget: the war in Afghanistan was explained by the United States–led coalition as a “necessary” or “just” war that would save the women of Afghanistan from the tyranny of the Taliban. In essence, the act of war was framed as an act of care for the women of Afghanistan.

The MoI administrators, and my student Jabar as well, were exasperated that the widows did not want to work. All my meetings with them began with, “We Afghans have become lazy.” The MoI administrators asked: “Why do they not want to work? Do they want to be dependent on charity their whole lives?” Jabar put it this way: “Who do they think they are? They want to be cared for and dependent on others? This is the problem of Afghanistan, everyone just wants charity.” Jabar’s questions were rhetorical; nevertheless, I tried to defend the position of the widows and their inherent right within Islam to receive aid and that it should not be understood as charity. His reply was clear: “It is not about their haqq, it is about the programs that the MoI and the German government are creating for them, and they need to work. They need to work to build this country, and it is their duty not to be dependent and lazy. There is no other option for them.” When I also asked about the request the widows made to have jobs provided for their sons or for other male family members, the reply was unequivocal: “No. This is part of a gender program, and it is only for the widows themselves, for the widows themselves to work, not their sons or whomever they want. Besides, their sons should be working anyway.”

Jabar’s response was particularly unexpected, as his own mother was a widow. He would not be swayed from his position, even when I asked him, “When your father left this world, if you had been only three or four (and therefore too young to work), would you have wanted your mother to work?” His reply was simple: “Shukr alhamdilallah [Thanks be to God], when my father left this world I was not four, I was eight years old, and I managed everything so that my mother never had to work [outside of the house] a day in her life.” Both Jabar and the MoI administrators summoned the rather historically inaccurate cliché—often used by Afghans—of Afghanistan as independent and unconquerable. “We are Afghans, we are not beggars. It is not the Afghan way to be dependent on others.”

Kabul, Afghanistan, 2002.


Kabul, Afghanistan, 2002. Photo: Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos.


As part of the fieldwork that I undertook before I met the widows of this particular suicide attack, I sat with women on the streets of Kabul as they asked passing cars for help. The women would simply say “zan e bewah” (widow, in Dari). Most of the cars’ occupants would give some money as soon as those words, “zan e bewah,” were uttered. I often found myself chasing after cars to ask those who gave money why they had done so. Most of the answers these commuters gave went something like this: “We are Afghans, we know what it means to lose in war, sometimes smaller things like property, our ability to work in our own country, the ground beneath our feet. But to be a widow means you lost more than the ground, more than a job and the widows on this street remind me of that every day.” I also came to learn that a few of the women I sat with in the streets were not even widows, yet they presented themselves as such. Thus, I came to understand that widowhood in Kabul is a form of social currency. By uttering “zan e bewah,” these women were more likely to get help. This is the reality after thirty-five years of serial war. Every Afghan family I met had widows in their homes. In some families, every single female, from the age of sixteen to sixty-seven, was widowed, some serially—meaning they had remarried, only to be widowed again. Afghans across the political spectrum, across class, take the obligation for the care of widows very much to heart.

One of my tasks as an anthropologist in the space of contemporary Kabul is to try to make some sense of this. What is the work that work does in the lives of widows? How do the development agendas of neoliberalism aim to restructure patterns of thought and practice in ways that are inconsistent with other systems of moral economy, such as the ethic of caring for widows and orphans that is rooted in Islam? How is it that these same neoliberal agendas, inconsistent in some ways, still resonate in other ways with the deep resentment Afghans have over being made perpetually dependent upon the agendas of others? Finally—the elephant in the room—since my hope is that we are all working toward the elimination of discrimination of women everywhere, why do I have a problem (which Rehana and other widows have taught me I have) with the fact that the only form of formal care widows are receiving from the Afghan state (as mandated by international donors) is that they are being asked to choose jobs? Where is women’s agency, the empowerment of women, if women do not think they necessarily need a job to have agency? What potential harm ensues when Afghans, and widows in particular, are being sold the neoliberal dream—the doctrine of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” being self-sufficient and responsible for your own success or failure—in a space and place currently and historically beset by wars that have come from elsewhere?

By questioning the measure of putting Afghan women to work as the primary way to gauge the success of the current war and occupation, I want to shift the focus onto the ordinary ethics of women like Rehana, women who were widowed in this particular suicide attack and elsewhere, in order to articulate the quiet, everyday ways Afghans pursue their ethical aspirations of endurance in the face of often utterly exhausting circumstances. Many, with perfectly good intentions, may want to believe that the best thing to come out of the ongoing thirteen-year war—itself justified under the premise of liberating Afghan women—is for Afghan women to be working, to be part of a wage-earning labor force. Though this topic deserves more, I would like, briefly, to situate such a well-intentioned sentiment within a broader understanding of the landscape of experiences that constitute everyday life for Afghans and give it some historical context. Afghans have been subjected to thirty-five years of war, including three occupations: the Soviet empire (1979–1989); the Taliban (which must be considered to a certain extent a foreign regime, since it was a movement engineered by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan); and the US-led NATO forces (2001–present). Much like Kareem’s family, Afghans have lost loved ones during each chapter of war and occupation. Through my work I try to encourage alternate ways of understanding empowerment and agency, to recognize that these hold much more than the limited definitions we may use in our imaginings about the experiences of Afghan families, or Afghan women in particular. Afghans have learned to endure uncertainty, pain, suffering, and humiliation. I am quite certain that none of us has done enough to fully understand what Afghans, collectively and individually, have experienced and endured.8 How have Afghans learned to live sanely in a world they have come to know, ultimately, as a painful one?9 What are the quiet ways Afghans, both men and women, have navigated loss and pain, and how have they learned both sane and insane modes of living lives that are adequate enough for this world?10 Surely such navigations in the pursuit of a livable life have and do require agency, as well as an active will to endure.

The war in Afghanistan has been presented as an act of care; I hope through my work to unsettle liberal imaginations of what it may mean to care.

I conclude with two notes of circumspection. First, I hope that what I have shared here is not perceived as saying that all development and international aid for Afghanistan in the past thirteen years was done all wrong, and that if only this aid had taken into account Afghan culture, everything would be fine. This is not the point I am trying to make here, even though a certain lack of cultural sensibilities can easily be demonstrated. My concern is rather with looking not only at how Afghan lives have been disrupted by serial war, but also at how ways of life are disabled or dismantled through serial humanitarianism. The war in Afghanistan has been presented as an act of care; I hope through my work to unsettle liberal imaginations of what it may mean to care. In the case of Afghanistan, it is just such liberal ideas of care that enabled the possibility of waging war on a people to be justified in the first place—as an act of care. Furthermore, as I have also tried to demonstrate, neoliberal moral economies privileging the individual as self-sufficient are eclipsing moral economies rooted in notions of the self as constituted through social relations, that is, a self not simply limited to an individual, but a self suspended in forms of relatedness and obligations within a collective mode of social belonging.

Second, there is a body of scholarly literature which holds that, in times of war and conflict, as state institutions disintegrate, people fall back on kinship as the primary structure for support and care. Yet, this is not what I am arguing here, and neither do I want to imply that in prewar Afghanistan zakat and dependence on kinship and community networks were stable and ideal forms of care and support. There is robust anthropological research, in addition to my own, which demonstrates that kinship can be as much about betrayal as it is about loyalty. That is, in my investigations into the everyday ways that serial wars, occupations, and humanitarianism have complicated obligations of care, I attend closely to the fact that kinship itself is complicated and is not always performed in ways that are nurturing and supportive.

To avoid these two possible misreadings, I situate my work with anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli’s research among aboriginal populations in Australia. Povinelli compels us to examine alternative forms of social belonging, vulnerability, and endurance alongside neoliberal forms of governance:

People may be bracketed by liberal procedures for proceeding in the face of alternative social projects and worlds, but these brackets do not vaporize them. Those within these brackets hear the same call for patience as those without. They are just differently positioned to this call. Large groups of people may be, as Dipesh Chakrabarty put it in another context, consigned to the “imaginary waiting room of history.” But they are living within these waiting rooms, whether one wishes they would or not. . . . From the perspective of dominant worlds, the condition in which they endure has the temporal structure of limbo—an edge of life located somewhere between given and new social positions and roles, and between the conditions of the past and present and the promise of the future.11

 I want to reiterate here what Povinelli refers to as “the promise of the future”—a promise, yet of an unattainable future embedded in a neoliberal dream. Povinelli and other critical scholars have demonstrated the problems with neoliberalism and capitalist modes of normativity, which make one believe that one is working toward a realizable dream. Even in the United States today, this neoliberal dream of a work ethic, self-sufficiency, a yet-to-be future “success” is a dubious one. And what about the particular problematic posed by this neoliberal ethic, of being responsible for yourself, getting a job to be self-sufficient, when at no time in the past thirty-five years, much less in the history of contemporary Afghanistan, have Afghans been in charge of their own destinies? Frankly, Afghans have been rendered expendable, killable. They are and have been subject to the geopolitical machinations of others. Thus, how appropriate is it, given this reality for a people who have been historically and contemporarily deceived, to burden them with a version of the clichéd, generic hope that is characteristic of neoliberalism?

Still, to say that Afghans have always been subject to the games of others does not mean Afghans are not also doing something else. What might it look like to consider the sentiments of the MoI administrators and of Jabar and of many other Afghans I came to know, their desire for Afghans to be independent because, after all, so they argue, they are Afghan? How do we shift to an exploration of the quiet, unseen projects of endurance and ethical self-making in the face of the often thoroughly exhausting circumstances of a place like Kabul? The emphasis I choose here is on the ordinary, despite the extraordinary nature of what transpires in Kabul: on how lives are shaped even in the midst of the extraordinary; on “what a life adds up to” (to cite anthropologist Kathleen Stewart12); on what a life becomes and on the potential it carries within itself, not because of the most powerful international actors and schemes, but despite them.



  1. Ethnography, a hallmark of anthropological research methods, is an in-depth theory of description of everyday life and social practice, usually obtained over long engagement with a people and a place.
  2. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005), 2.
  3. Paul Treanor, “Neoliberalism: Origins, Theory, Definition,”; emphasis in the original.
  4. One recent illustration of liberal practice in the United States was the response to George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin, when activists coined the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” Because of the disproportionate disregard for black and brown bodies in the United States, this campaign resonated with many and gained momentum far beyond the murder of Trayvon Martin and the 2014 deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City (to name just two, more prominent cases). A characteristically liberal response to the Black Lives Matter campaign was “All Lives Matter,” which focused only on equality, without attending to the material injustices and racism inherent in systems such as capitalism. Some brilliant articulations on the limits and instantiations of liberalism include: Uday Mehta, Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought (University of Chicago Press, 1999); and the following books by Elizabeth Povinelli (all from Duke University Press): The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism (2002); The Empire of Love: Toward a Theory of Intimacy, Genealogy, and Carnality (2006); and Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism (2011).
  5. I put “martyrs” (shaheed, singular, in Dari and Pashto) in quotation marks, to indicate a note of caution in using the word. Though the term refers to an honorable concept rooted in Islam, for Afghans it has become a contested word. Throughout the thirty-five years of serial war, the word shaheed has been used for political purposes far too often, thus eroding the sense of honor the term carries. Who uses it—and in what particular context—now determines whether Afghans themselves consider the word to convey honor, disgust, or sarcasm.
  6. It is unusual for unrelated males and females to sit together in the same room. Kareem’s father knew this was an exceptional situation, so he asked for my permission to sit with us.
  7. Until Jabar asked me to assist the MoI, I had done everything I could not to be associated with any NGO, state institution, or the army. I finally agreed to volunteer my services, as long as I was allowed to reiterate that I was not working for the Afghan state or for any NGO or donor agency and that I was there, of my own volition, to try to be of help to the widows and their families.
  8. I have in mind here the multiple kinds of work that are needed: ethical, physical, philosophical, political, scholarly, and otherwise.
  9. I work with the ideas of anthropologist Talal Asad on agency and pain, specifically how Asad understands pain and suffering as being agentive rather than passive states.
  10. This idea of living sanely is Talal Asad’s: “What a subject experiences as painful, and how, are not only culturally and physically mediated, they are themselves modes of living painful relations. The ability to live such relationships over time transforms pain from a passive experience into an active one, and thus defines one of the ways of living sanely in the world. It does not follow, of course, that one cannot or should not seek to reform the social relations one inhabits, still less that pain is ‘a valuable thing’. My point is that one can live sanely or insanely in a painful world, and that the progressivist model of agency diverts attention away from our trying to understand how this is done in different traditions” (emphasis in original); “Agency and Pain: An Exploration,” Culture and Religion 1, no. 1 (2000): 43. I elaborate on this point, and on Asad’s work, in my forthcoming book, “War and What Remains: Everyday Life in Contemporary Kabul, Afghanistan.”
  11. Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism. (Duke University Press, 2011), 77.
  12. Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects (Duke University Press, 2007), 129.

Anila Daulatzai holds graduate degrees from UCLA in public health and Islamic studies, and received her PhD in anthropology from Johns Hopkins University in 2013. This is an edited version of the Women’s Studies in Religion Program lecture she delivered in October 2014 on her ethnographic research with widows and their families in Kabul, Afghanistan. She is currently writing a book based on that fieldwork.

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Why 'Brain Death' Is Contested Ground

Jeffrey P. Bishop

Brain death illustration
Illustration by Scott Laumann

On December 9, 2013, a thirteen-year-old African American girl named Jahi McMath entered a hospital for routine surgery. She was to have a tonsillectomy, a uvulopalatopharyngoplasty, and a submucosal resection of the inferior turbinates. Jahi was having difficulty with obstructive sleep apnea, and the surgery would open her airway so air could flow more freely, allowing her to sleep better at night. The procedure itself seemed to be a success—at least in the immediate postoperative period. Jahi had awoken from surgery, and she was communicative, speaking to nurses and her family. Jahi was taken to the intensive care unit as a precaution, since she had experienced more blood loss than would have been expected.

Within a few hours, Jahi began to bleed profusely from her surgical sites, resulting in the aspiration of blood into her lungs. In addition, she lost so much blood that her blood pressure fell to dangerously low levels. These two factors resulted in hypo-oxygenation of her blood and decreased perfusion of her brain. As a result, she sustained serious anoxic brain injury (because there was not enough oxygenated blood reaching her brain). On December 12, 2013, Jahi was pronounced dead by brain-death criteria—her whole brain was dead, including the brain-stem, which controls the automaticity of breathing.

In the midst of this tragedy, Jahi’s family was grieving, lost, hurting, and bewildered. And their already difficult situation was made worse by several bureaucratic procedures that kicked in even before Jahi would have been declared brain dead, including a request that Jahi’s family donate her organs for transplantation. Every hospital in the United States now has a policy in place requiring that every death in the hospital must be reported to the local organ procurement organization (OPO). Moreover, a hospital is expected to follow a set of procedures and guidelines for best practices in declaring patients brain dead for the purposes of organ procurement.1 The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA),2 the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), and the Joint Commission (formerly the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations) together monitor adherence to these guidelines. A hospital can receive a “red flag” for not following the guidelines, which can threaten accreditation and Medicare/Medicaid eligibility.3 After Jahi’s family refused to donate her organs, a series of other procedures were deployed to turn off the ventilator machine breathing for Jahi. Jahi was legally dead, and since insurers don’t like to pay for health care for dead people, the hospital notified the family that they were going to turn the ventilator off, allowing Jahi’s heart to stop beating.

The family secured a lawyer, and several community support networks were mobilized. Given the African American community’s historically troubled relationship with the medical system, several commentators have speculated that there might be racial overtones to the decision to pronounce Jahi dead by brain-death criteria.4 As seen recently in Ferguson, the subtleties of structural racism manifest themselves with a vengeance in moments of crisis. In addition, there were reports that several right-to-life groups had gotten involved, and some have accused the lawyer of manipulating the family.

The family claimed that Jahi was still alive; her heart was beating, her blood was circulating, and she continued to produce urine and stool. The parents took the hospital to court, asking the court to intervene to prevent the hospital from removing Jahi from the ventilator. The court ordered an independent doctor—Paul Graham Fisher, division chief of child neurology at Stanford University School of Medicine—to do an examination of Jahi. Fisher confirmed the clinical diagnosis of brain death, and also performed an EEG, which showed no brain activity.5 The court ruled that the doctors could remove Jahi from the ventilator, but the family appealed the decision, asking that they be allowed to make arrangements with other hospital facilities. They requested that the hospital place a feeding tube and a tracheostomy tube, as these are easier to manage in the care of patients who will need long-term mechanical ventilation. Moreover, most skilled nursing facilities require such measures on a ventilated patient, before they are willing to admit the patient.

The hospital claimed to be following its protocols for brain death; for brain-dead individuals whose families have not agreed to have their organs donated, the procedure is to turn off the machines. After initially refusing to place the feeding and tracheostomy tubes, the hospital agreed to place them a few days later, as a means to expedite Jahi’s discharge from the hospital. Jahi had a feeding tube and the tracheostomy tube placed on January 5. Meanwhile, on January 3, 2014, the Alameda County coroner released a death certificate stating that Jahi had died on December 12, 2013. Per California state law, all bodies of deceased patients are released to the local county authority before being released to the family (usually the family designates a funeral operator to receive the body). On January 6, Jahi’s body was released to the Alameda County coroner’s office, while it was still on a ventilator and while her heart was still beating. The coroner’s office released Jahi’s ventilated and living body to her mother, who had arranged for her to be transferred to a long-term care facility in New Jersey. New Jersey’s statute on brain death, passed in 2000, permits religious exemptions to whole-brain-death diagnosis. The state, therefore, has facilities that care for patients who show signs of total brain failure.

The problem illustrated by the Jahi McMath case is not that people are generally uneducated about brain death, or that her parents were ignorant, as has been suggested by most commentators. The problem is not (as some have also suggested) that right-wing conservative groups have manipulated Jahi’s parents. The problem is not a failure in cultural communication (though there is no denying that race, religion, and culture are important in understanding this case). In my view, the problem goes deeper: it is clear that Jahi McMath’s family had no way to understand the concept of “brain death,” because it is not an intuitive idea. It is not that the words “brain” and “death” are not understood in plain English, but rather that the concept “brain death” just does not make sense to Jahi’s family (and would not make sense to many families faced with this same situation). On the surface, “brain death” appears to be a very stable concept, but, in practice, we see it frays at the edges. And it seems to me that the recently implemented organ procurement measures bring those frayed edges into sharp relief, as Jahi’s case suggests.

This has become a rallying case precisely because it illustrates several oddities in medical practice. For example, Jahi receives medical care while dead under the law. This leads many to ask how Jahi can be dead and yet living. Is she dead when the machines are turned off, or when her heart stops beating? In fact, it is not uncommon for a brain-dead person’s heart to beat for an hour or so, and up to several hours in a neonate patient, after the machines are turned off. Would it be acceptable to send her to the morgue while her heart still beats? Or would one send her to the crematorium, or be allowed to bury her, while her heart continues to beat? How can the county coroner’s office issue a death certificate on January 3, 2014, stating that Jahi has been dead since December 13, 2013, only to receive her body on January 6, 2014, and release it to her parents so they can take her to another facility to receive medical care? All of these questions make clear that “brain death” is a legal fiction.

It seems entirely reasonable to me that Jahi’s family would have had no way to think about her as a person in which her body could be alive but in which she was at the same time dead.

What we see in this and other cases like it are two different modes of thinking about the body. The problem is how we think about bodies, and what can be done for and to bodies, and for what purposes we can do those things for and to bodies. It seems entirely reasonable to me that Jahi’s family would have had no way to think about her as a person in which her body could be alive but in which she was at the same time dead. Put into the language of Martin Buber, Jahi’s mother had an I-Thou relationship with her daughter’s body while the doctors had an I-It relationship with Jahi’s corpse. I want to suggest that what we have here is a failure of our larger concepts around death.

Many philosophers have noted the impossibility of conceptualizing death, especially one’s own death. For Hegel, one’s own death is a thought or concept that cannot really be imagined by oneself. For Heidegger, while time can be experienced, but not fully represented, death can be represented to oneself in the death of the other, but my death—death in the first person—cannot be experienced by me. As Robert Jenson puts it, “The only images I seem able to summon to accompany the proposition ‘I will die’ are in fact of some continuation of consciousness in death,” a consciousness that is no longer a possibility when I am dead.6 Jenson further argues:

The sheer end of someone is easy to think in the third person: first there is Jones and then there is only an erstwhile organism, a corpse, which is not Jones. The corpse provides the Vorstellung [image of death]: to envision Jones dead I need only view or imagine the corpse. But in the first person—or indeed sometimes in the second—the first “only” makes a twist. From my point of view, my corpse is not, as in the third person, the fact of the person’s—my—non-existence. What for me would be the fact of my non-existence would be the absence of my consciousness.7

But there is another point: we doctors are practiced in terms of thinking about bodies as “Its” and not as “Thous.” That is to say, we are practiced at thinking of the body as an object; but for families, that transition of a body from a Thou to an It is not entirely obvious or clear, especially when one engages the other as a Thou, as a second person. Put differently yet again, what we find is a clash between the way Jahi’s family thinks of her and her body and the procedures that have grown up around the corpse—a clash of ontologies. Because medicine’s ontology of the body is quite distinct from our religious and cultural modes of thinking about the body, medicine constantly fails to address deeper questions of human meaning about the body.

To understand better how we have gotten to this point, I need to explore a little of the philosophical history of medicine. The historical shift in the way that we think about the living body began about two hundred years ago. This shift was not merely a shift in our mores, but in our thinking about bodies, about the ontology of the body; that is to say, our understanding of metaphysics shifted. In The Anticipatory Corpse, I argued that the dominant stance of medicine toward the living body has been shaped by its understanding of the dead body—the corpse.8 The cadaver came to shape the way doctors think about the living body, and this metaphysical shift transformed how we think about and engage the dying body, as well as the living body. As a result, we in medicine think about bodies as dead matter in motion, ordered to function but not to purpose, and for this reason we repeatedly find ourselves in health care practices that come across as inhumane.

With the rise of modern anatomic practices in the eighteenth century, the dead body became epistemologically normative; that is to say, the dead body became the measure against which the living body would be gauged. By the mid-fifteenth century, the law in most of Europe allowed for anatomic dissection; the church had given its blessing to dissection around the same time. Michel Foucault argues that the new interest in anatomy in the late eighteenth century was about the changing relationship of the physician to the dead body. In the late eighteenth century, medical students all over Europe would wander the streets of London or Edinburgh or Paris taking note of the sick among the poor; and after the afflicted had died, the students would proceed to the cemetery to dig up the dead body.

This practice of digging up and dissecting corpses became commonplace because the professors of medicine believed that the dead body contained a kind of truth that had to be seen before the body began to decay. The dead body spoke the truth about anatomy and disease; and this new truth brought to light by the dissector’s scalpel would reveal itself in the static and stable ground of the dead body. After all, the living body—the body in motion—is always changing, and it is difficult to build knowledge on such shifting ground. The dead body is static and can serve as “ground zero” for our knowledge. The dead body became an ideal type; it could be mapped onto the bodies of the living.

That same ideal type of the dead body shaped not only anatomical thinking, but also the physiological thinking of Xavier Bichat and Claude Bernard. In the early part of the nineteenth century, Bichat wrote that “life consists in the sum of the functions by which death is resisted.”9 Death is the ground of life; death is primordial. Bernard, the great physiologist, held the same conceptualization. Commenting on the importance of vivisection, Bernard stated that in order “to learn how man and animals live, we cannot avoid seeing great numbers of them die, because the mechanisms of life can be unveiled and proved only by knowledge of the mechanism of death.”10 Bernard concluded that the terms “life and death have no objective reality in medicine and physiology.”11

By the early nineteenth century, the current view of the living body as nothing more than dead matter in motion had become the norm. In such a conception of bodily existence, one cannot find the ultimate causes of life in physiology. Moreover, if one seeks the first cause of life, one would be guilty of vitalism. The body is perceived to have no first cause and no ultimate purpose.12 For the physiologists, there is only function; life is when the blood goes round and round. This continues to be true, even in modern physiology. The standard textbook of physiology today notes that “the human being is actually an automaton.”13 Life has no fundamental ontology, according to the physiologists.

Yet it is not quite right to say that life has no ontology whatsoever; rather, the fundamental ontology of the body was that of dead matter. What makes the body alive are the forces that put matter into motion. The observable body is an efficient mechanism. Life is a series of causes, within which forces lead to effects: a cog turns a wheel, which turns another cog, and so forth and so on. But in the case of the body, this movement is ordered to no particular purpose. Medicine had become about how the failing cogs and wheels can be manipulated to keep the body in motion. As E. A. Burtt noted in 1925, with the rise of the modern natural sciences, humankind with all of her “purposes, feelings, and secondary qualities was shoved apart as an unimportant spectator and semi-real effect” of the great mechanistic drama that is the world and the body.14

Brain death is one example of the way these meta physical ideas and conceptualizations are expressed in current medical practices and definitions. Several thinkers have pointed out that brain death came to be constructed by social forces for the express purpose of organ transplantation.15 Prior to the creation of the concept of brain death in 1968, patients that may have been brain dead were referred to as “living cadavers”—a term that originated in the anatomy lab—or as “heart-lung preparations.”16 A “heart-lung preparation” is a lab animal that has been prepped for experimentation.17 Thus, the names and values of the anatomy and physiology lab moved directly into the clinical arena.18

These ontological ideas, grounded in the dead body, have moved into our debates about brain death and into our understanding of transplantation, in which the living organs of the dead are taken to replace the dead organs of the living. Inside medicine’s normative epistemology of the dead body, we find medicine’s metaphysics to be one of efficient causation, the efficiency of the machine of the body. And it is medicine’s ontology, its understanding of the body as an object, that has led to the absurdities in practice—like a patient’s being pronounced dead, but whose body is being kept alive. Moreover, within the modern medical frame, not only is the body primarily thought of as a complicated mechanism, it is also situated within a social order that permits the removal of organs to be utilized by others in society. A whole series of social apparatuses and procedures is deployed, created by the HRSA, the CMS, the Joint Commission, the OPO, the hospital, and the law, to maximize organ procurement. In fact, doctors are no longer allowed to request organ donation from the families of the deceased, because they are not considered “effective requesters.” Instead, the OPO nurses, who have undergone “effective requester” training, initiate the conversation around donation, as they did in Jahi’s case.

The procedural apparatus of the hospital compels us to think of ourselves and our loved ones as “Its”; can there be any surprise when families inevitably resist?

The implicit moral ordering of the organ procurement apparatus is that Jahi’s body ought to be aimed toward its usefulness for others in need of organs, even if we must violate something sacred about Jahi and her family’s understanding of the meaning and purpose of her body. In other words, her body becomes an “It” to be utilized for other social good. If her body cannot be ordered to social good, the machines ought to be turned off; to do otherwise is to be wasteful. Meanwhile, though, her family is offended by this system that transforms Jahi’s body into an It.

Martin Buber notes that there can be no “I” that is not always already a relationship. There is no “I” that is not already an “I-Thou.” For Buber, the two primary words that constitute the “I” are the relationships between I-Thou and I-It. Buber states:

If Thou is said, the I of the combination I-Thou is said along with it.
If It is said, the I of the combination I-It is said along with it.
The primary word I-Thou can only be spoken with the whole being.
The primary word I-It can never be spoken with the whole being.
There is no I taken in itself, but only the I of the primary word I-Thou and the I of the primary word I-It.19

Put differently, I am constituted by all of my I-Thou relationships; I am constituted interpersonally.

Jahi and her family members were in I-Thou relationships. Jahi’s mother’s “I,” in speaking, “I do not want to donate my daughter’s organs,” could not conceive the “It” of Jahi’s body, because she held a different understanding of ontology, in which her daughter’s body participated in the constitution of her own “I,” her own being. In this sense, when her mother contemplates Jahi’s death, she contemplates the death of a Thou, of a second person, and this Thou already contained the combination I-Thou. When Jahi’s Thou dies, part of her mother’s I dies, because as Buber notes, in saying “I,” she always has the I-Thou of her relationship with Jahi entwined in her “I.” Jahi’s mother, like all of us, is interpersonally constituted.

The social apparatus of the OPO and the hospital can easily disassociate itself from a body that is an “It”; indeed, the very concept of death, the concept of a dead body, and the concept of brain death are all derived fundamentally from the It of the corpse. In this view, it is so easy for Jahi’s body to be represented as the death of a third person, but not to her mother. Her mother’s whole being is caught up in her relationship to Jahi. The procedural apparatus of the hospital compels us to think of ourselves and our loved ones as “Its”; can there be any surprise when families inevitably resist the procedures of the apparatus?

It seems clear to me that, for her family, Jahi’s body can never be a mere mechanism ordered to the functioning of other bodies—in this case, eight other bodies—through transplantation. Jahi’s family members are not ignorant, nor are they selfish. For most of us, the world and the body carry meaning and purpose, even when, in our more rationalistic and objective stance, we hold the “Itness” of the world to be fundamentally meaningless. For most of us, the relatedness of embodied subjects to one another is that of I-Thou. In the way that we live our lives, the meaning and purpose of the body is the truth of the body. Whatever Jahi or her family understood the ultimate purpose of her body to be, it was not a mere mechanism held in reserve for another body or bodies. Meaning and mechanism are of a whole cloth for most of us.

So, we are stuck. Whereas the body had to be gutted of any meaning and purpose in order for modern science to get at the truth of the body, for religious and cultural modes of being in the world, the meaning and purpose of the body is the truth of the body. What is lost in Jahi’s life is not just the failed mechanism of her brain, as if it is devoid of meaning. A family cannot simply give up the Thou of Jahi, nor can the family abandon Jahi to some utilitarian calculus ordered for social good (as defined by the state). Rather, what is lost is the meaning and purpose of Jahi’s body, which co-constitutes the meanings and purposes of her family members’ lives. In other words, to think the death of a loved one—of a Thou—is to think the death of the self in one sense. Our thinking about the meaning and purpose of the body is the thinking of a relating self. For her family, Jahi’s body can never really be the It of the corpse, and attempts to convince her mother to think of Jahi this way come across as cold, at the very least, and violent, at the very worst. Despite the fact that the medical apparatus of organ procurement compels Jahi’s family to think otherwise—despite the fact that it compels us all to think otherwise—the I-Thou of the relationship between Jahi’s mother and her daughter exceeds our concepts of the corpse.

Death is, of course, a question of metaphysics, even while the medical establishment wants to avoid getting into arcane philosophical discussions. In 1981, the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research claimed to be avoiding arcane philosophical debates, but then enacted its own metaphysical definition of death, which then became ensconced in the law in the Uniform Definition of Death Act (UDDA). The case of Jahi McMath shows us that this definition of death enacts certain metaphysical assumptions that are at odds with our religious and cultural modes of thinking about death.

Death is a reality. It is a metaphysical reality, in that it refers to a state of affairs of a body that was once alive. Discerning that state of affairs is very easy, to be honest. We know that a body is dead when it begins to decay. The problem has always been that our social need to discern when a body is dead compels us to explore more refined ways of discerning when the point of no return has arrived. Brain death as a concept began to be promulgated in 1968, culminating in the UDDA of 1981.20 Transplantation technology no doubt assisted in compelling society to accept the fiction of brain death. As H. Tristram Engelhardt noted years ago, social realities have always compelled societies to define death; after all, we need to know when it is time to bury a body, when the person’s will can be executed, and when we no longer owe the body the same respect as all other bodies in a society.21 In other words, when can we treat this body differently than others?

For these reasons, brain death as a concept is under review. In fact, the President’s Council on Bioethics in 2008 said that we should move away from brain death and that we should instead speak of total brain failure.22 This move would help clarify what is actually happening in the body. Franklin Miller and Robert Truog have suggested that we should remove brain death from the lexicon of medical definitions and concepts, allowing families to decide when a person deserves care and when a person’s body can be used for different social reasons.23 Such a move would allow Jahi McMath’s family (and others like hers) to continue to care for her and would also allow other families who see that their loved one is not going to return to a fully functional state to turn the machines off or to permit transplantation. Miller and Truog also suggest that we do away with the dead donor rule and make it clear to families that brain death is a legal fiction, but that the term still has uses as a legal fiction. I prefer, instead, to use the language of total brain failure. Once a patient is in total brain failure, we can say that we have arrived at a morally sufficient point in the life of the person that organ procurement is permitted.

Yet, neither Miller and Truog’s solution nor mine would escape the cold and harsh realities of the social and political apparatus that is medicine and the modern organ procurement enterprise. In fact, both of our solutions really only tell us when the social and political apparatus can legitimately be deployed. Jahi’s family will find no relief from the apparatus even if we use terms like total brain failure, because the apparatus will always grate harshly against our experiences of persons we love. After all, persons are both biological and interpersonal constructions. The social apparatus asks us to ignore the interpersonal dimension. It asserts that, because the brain is biologically dead and the other organs are biologically living, these biologically living parts ought to be used in transplantation, even if the apparatus asserts that it does not explicitly suggest that organ donation is the ethically correct way forward. It is because the social apparatus in place to declare death is intimately tied to the social apparatus of organ procurement that Jahi McMath’s family found itself in a battle to continue care for Jahi. The social apparatus that is organ procurement and that animates the laws governing our legal definitions of death violate our religious and cultural modes of thinking about persons.

The conceit of modern society, and the medicine and law that it produces, is that all of our problems have technical or bureaucratic solutions. All of our drives to define death biologically for socially expedient reasons transgress a reality quite different from the reality of bodies, all the while claiming that they are concerned with the biological fact of bodies. It is within this technocratic context, and because of it, that Jahi’s family suffered so greatly after her brain injury. All of our technocratic apparatuses sustained by the power of medicine and the law cannot do justice to the insoluble mystery of persons, for as persons we always exceed our biological and interpersonal conditions, even while we are constituted by those conditions.



  1. Every major hospital in the United States has a business relationship with an OPO.
  2. The HRSA is part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, under the secretary of HHS.
  3. The governing procedures require that the OPO be called on every death in the hospital and on every patient who meets a set of criteria, no matter if the patient is legally dead or not. In fact, any patient with a brain injury who is placed on a ventilator triggers a call to the OPO.
  4. See Rhea Boyd, “Dying While Black—The Case of Jahi McMath,” SFGate, January 31, 2014, See also Gloria Goodale, “Jahi McMath: Where the Law Stands When Hospitals and Families Disagree,” The Christian Science Monitor, December 24, 2013,
  5. It should be noted that EEGs are not thought to be very good at diagnosing brain death. In fact, all of our technological means of determining brain death are merely indirect measures of brain activity and have both false positive and false negative rates.
  6. Robert W. Jenson, On Thinking the Human: Resolutions of Difficult Notions (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003), 2.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Jeffrey P. Bishop, The Anticipatory Corpse: Medicine, Power and the Care of the Dying (University of Notre Dame Press, 2011). In the book I ask: What would we have to believe about the body such that we in medicine can come to treat bodies in just the way that we do?
  9. Marie-François Xavier Bichat, Physiological Researches on Life and Death, trans. F. Gold, Significant Contributions to the History of Psychology, Physiological Psychology Series (University Publications of America, 1978; reprint of edition published by Richardson and Lord, 1827), 9–10; Bishop, The Anticipatory Corpse, 67.
  10. Claude Bernard, An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine, trans. Henry Copley Greene (Dover Publications, 1957), 99; Bishop, The Anticipatory Corpse, 73.
  11. Bernard, Study of Experimental Medicine, 67; Bishop, The Anticipatory Corpse, 76.
  12. See Gerald P. McKenny’s wonderful work on medicine as a Baconian project, To Relieve the Human Condition: Bioethics, Technology, and the Body (State University of New York Press, 1997).
  13. Bishop, The Anticipatory Corpse, 166; Arthur C. Guyton and John E. Hall, Textbook of Medical Physiology, 11th ed. (W. B. Saunders, 2006), 3.
  14. Edwin Arthur Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science: A Historical and Critical Essay (1925; Humanity Books, 1999), 104.
  15. Margaret Lock, Twice Dead: Organ Transplants and the Reinvention of Death (University of California Press, 2001); Mita Giacomini, “A Change of Heart and a Change of Mind? Technology and the Redefinition of Death in 1968,” Social Science and Medicine 44, no. 10 (1997): 1465–1482; and Bishop, The Anticipatory Corpse.
  16. Law and Ethics of Transplantation, ed. Gordon Wolstenholme and Maeve O’Connor, CIBA Foundation Blueprint (J A Churchill, 1966).
  17. The animal’s heart would have been cannulated, an arterial line would have been placed, the animal would have been put to sleep and ventilated, and a central intravenous line placed into its heart, all so that medical students could physiologically manipulate the animal, giving it drugs and watching how blood pressure, heart rate, or oxygen consumption changed.
  18. I provide a more detailed account of this history in Bishop, The Anticipatory Corpse, 144–167. See also Giacomini, “A Change of Heart and a Change of Mind?”; and Lock, Twice Dead.
  19. Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith (Collier Books, 1958), 4.
  20. President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research, Defining Death: Medical, Legal, and Ethical Issues in the Determination of Death (US Government Printing Office, 1981). In The Anticipatory Corpse, I show how the commission, while attempting to escape metaphysical claims, ends up deploying them.
  21. See H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., “Reexamining the Definition of Death,” in Death: Beyond Whole-Brain Criteria, ed. Richard Zaner (Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1988), 91–98.
  22. Controversies in the Determination of Death: A White Paper by the President’s Council on Bioethics (US Government Printing Office, 2008).
  23. See Franklin G. Miller and Robert D. Truog, Death, Dying, and Organ Transplantation: Reconstructing Medical Ethics at the End of Life (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Jeffrey P. Bishop is Professor of Philosophy and holds the Tenet Chair of Health Care Ethics at Saint Louis University, where he is also director of the Albert Gnaegi Center for Health Care Ethics. He is the author of The Anticipatory Corpse: Medicine, Power, and the Care of the Dying (University of Notre Dame Press, 2011).

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